Theater Review: ‘The Roommate’ at Riverside Theatre

'The Roommate'

Riverside Theatre, Iowa City, through May 14, $15-35

Mary Mayo and Joy Vandervort-Cobb in Riverside Theatre’s 2023 production of ‘The Roommate’ by Jen SIlverman. — Photo by Rob Merrit/Courtesy of Riverside Theatre

The Roommate was penned by one of the most produced playwrights in the country right now, Jen Silverman, who received an MFA in playwriting at the University of Iowa. The show takes place in Iowa City and, for the first time now, is being staged here

Though Silverman’s lived all over the world, Iowa must have left a lasting impression, because in crafting The Roommate, Silverman’s Iowa City is more than the setting of some stage business. The city is the third character in this dark comedy — and one that gots plenty of laughs and knowing head nods on opening night.

Jonathan Wentz’s set is beautifully and believably “a big old house in Iowa City. Now.” While another designer might have gotten stuck on the “old” part of that directive, Wentz used his knowledge of what big old houses in Iowa City actually look like inside coupled with a keen reading of the character, Sharon, whose home it is. The clean, bright, contemporary and personality-lacking interior is a perfect stand-in for the character’s previous 54 years of life.

The right design elements can create more than a mood and do heavy lifting in the way of storytelling. Wentz’s set does just that, aided by Steven Polchert’s many props, transforming the space over the course of the show.

I also must call out Karlē J. Myers’ spot-on costuming. The clothes people wear tell the story of who we think we are or want to be. Given that the major arc of The Roommate confronts ideas of identity, Myers creates incredibly strong storytelling throughout. For example, I quickly got the message that Sharon shops almost exclusively at Textiles on the ped mall — no lines needed. And some of the later Myers-made pieces are simply divine.

This is a show with many transitions, though always the same setting (the interior of Sharon’s house). Depicting the passage of days requires time consuming costume changes, and I was always excited to see what the characters were wearing next. But the problem of many, sometimes lengthy, “scene changes” is the fact that no scenery changed.

I watched the very competent assistant stage manager, Reese Morgan, tidy up the space or move boxes to a new location more closely than needed and began imagining that Morgan was the characters’ house-keeper ghost who came in the night to do their dishes. Part of my wandering mind was due to a general patience deficit in me and another part due to a bit of a storytelling vacuum in theses transitions. Bri Atwood’s sound design and Jim Vogt’s lighting design perfectly supported the story during the scenes, but I was unshackled from that story during these interstitial moments. Enter my own made up nonsense.

Mary Mayo and Joy Vandervort-Cobb in Riverside Theatre’s 2023 production of ‘The Roommate’ by Jen SIlverman. — Photo by Rob Merrit/Courtesy of Riverside Theatre

In the brief synopsis I read for The Roommate before heading to the opening show, the play was called “The Odd Couple meets Breaking Bad.” So, armed with those two comparables, I figured I was in for two mismatched characters trying to cohabitate with at least one progressing from normie-vanilla toward something more scandalous and possibly illegal.

I wasn’t wrong! But my assumptions as I was introduced to the characters in the first scene regarding who was “The Bert” and who was “The Ernie” turned out to be entirely reversed. While Robyn, played by Mary Mayo, is the catalyst to the story when she moves from the Bronx to her idea of the-middle-of-nowhere to start over from scratch — the story itself belongs to Sharon, who, when unleashed, is absolutely the chaos monster of the two.

Joy Vandervort-Cobb brought such energy, nuance, child-like joy and goddess-level wrath to Sharon, I couldn’t get enough. And the timing between Mayo and Vandervort-Cobb’s perfect line deliveries provided laughs a-plenty.

As a queer woman in her 40’s myself, I so enjoy watching 50-ish year old women and queer characters on stage. Skillful director and accomplished playwright Nina Morrison, at 49, echoes this joy in her Director’s Note — and it shows in her dynamic staging of two strong women filling the space with their fear, regret, laughter and rage. Come for the local references — but stay for this story of women in their prime as they explore what it would look like to change everything.

Saunia Powell is a queer ex-theater maker and hospice chaplain.