By James V. Ruocco
It's not exactly "The Odd Couple," which, when you think about it, is a compliment in itself.
Regardless, "The Roommate," written by Jen Silverman, uses the oft-told story of two divorced people, who become housemates as the story board for her winningly human, laugh-filled comedy that makes you completely forget about Felix and Oscar and their upper West Side digs and say "Hello" to Sharon and Robyn of friendly Iowa.
"The Roommate" spins, cajoles and snaps. It's fresh and exciting. It unfolds with a cork-popping cascade of laughs that keep coming and coming. It never fails to deliver. It's also the perfect pick to launch Long Wharf's exciting, new 2018-2019 season, which includes "Paradise Blue," "A Doll's House, Part 2" and "Tiny Beautiful Things."
As devised by the playwright, "The Roommate" is a play about chance, camaraderie, assumptions, femininity, parenting, homosexuality, self-expression, loneliness, observation, motherhood, failed marriage, starting over, empty nesting, middle age, divorce, friendship, living together, transformation, conversation, finding space, awareness and experimentation.
Yes, there are laughs. Yes, there are cliches. Yes, there are one-liners. And yes, there is an obvious state of arsenal clownishness mixed with well-orchestrated dashes of heightened reality and pathos by the playwright.
Nonetheless, without the right sense of comic timing and pacing, it could all go belly up if the material falls into the hands of someone not versed or akin to this particular brand of comedy. Luckily for us, Long Wharf has enlisted the talents of Mike Donahue, a director not only skilled in the mechanics of this form of storytelling, but one who understands that good comedy is more than just double takes, broad characterizations, snappy zingers and robust flapping.
That said, Donahue crafts a well-honed theater piece that respects and understands its comic origins, its odd couple territory, its snappy language, its story board advancement, its conversational cogs and its conventional realism. From rehearsal space to actual live audience, everything that happens in "The Roommate" has been delegated with clockwork precision, nuance, color and delightful awareness.
This being a two-character play with no intermission, Donahue must keep the entire piece flowing at breakneck speed without any lulls or pauses in the action except for quick scene changes, lighting cues, props cues or obvious passages of time. Here, pacing and timing is everything and Donahue succeeds swimmingly. Blocking, stage business, positioning, character interaction and line delivery is done with metronome precision, style and comic grace. There's no preening. There's no hogging of the spotlight. There's no camping things up for a laugh. There's no upstaging. Instead, Donahue lets Silverman's material breathe, entice and take shape naturally as well it should be. And therein, lies the play's flavorsome enjoyment.
The casting of Tasha Lawrence as Robyn and Linda Powell as Sharon gives "The Roommate" its comic snap, its topicality and its marvelous sense of vibe, drive and character. Like Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane in Joe Mantello's 2005 Broadway revival of Neil Simon's "The Odd Coule," they too share a noticeable fondness for the material, their mismatched roommate dilemma and their role in the play's advancement and the outcome of the story. They are also able to shift gears in a single millisecond with chameleon-like dexterity.
Upfront, both actresses are perfectly cast for their respective roles. There's real depth and feeling to what they say and do. There's an element of surprise and dash to their body language and facial expressions, particularly when Silverman reveals a plot twist, tick or comic jolt. Lawrence and Powell also trot out a deliciously timed zaniness and diligence when the play's humor purposely drifts over the top (Silverman and Donahue navigate things with witty, steadfast precision), sending them happily into flight. Even so, no matter how crazy things get, they make you believe everything they say and do. Windups and madness aside, they are an ideal, but very real odd couple.
"The Roommate" is very, very funny stuff. It is carried out to ovation-worthy status by two versatile actresses who have a good time, how know to build and frame a joke and know how to deliver a swag-load of pleasure. Cheeky, minty and inventive, this comedy has much more fruitful mayhem than both "The Odd Couple" and "Barefoot in the Park" combined. So roll out the welcome mat and enjoy. There's lots of laughter here, and then some.
"The Roommate" is being staged at Long Wharf Theatre (222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, CT), now through November 4.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 787-4282.