When it comes to riotous comic vignettes, 1812 Productions is Philly’s gold standard. For 22 years and counting, their shows—particular the holiday variety and political revues—are sure-fire, sellout crowd pleasers.
But what works in vaudeville bits rarely translates to plays, where even comedies need deeper insight and a slower burn.
Jen Silverman’s The Roommate, only a few years old, is already a regional theater favorite, and it’s easy to see why—it’s short, punchy, and can be produced on a relatively small budget. Better yet, it offers two middle-aged actresses a pair of showy roles. Nice Midwestern mom Sharon (played here by Jennifer Childs) and acerbic New York lesbian Robin (Grace Gonglewski) find themselves sharing a house in Iowa by a quirk of fate (or too-facile playwriting—I’ll let you be the judge).
There is, to be sure, a lot of stale, meet-cute jokiness in The Roommate. But from the beginning, I could also detect hints that Silverman wanted to write something not so much overtly funny as quietly character-driven. By the end, I was sure of it.
For me, watching the show at 1812 felt like two different experiences. I tried to stay in the moment with Childs and Gonglewski as they went through their often antic motions; at the same time, I tried to focus on the script, to get a better sense of where it wanted to take us.
I feel certain that the latter aims to evolve more delicately. The Roommate begins as a wry study of two women, who could hardly be more different, warily sussing each other out. Somewhere around the play’s midpoint, the tone turns broader, but also darker. In order not to spoil anything, I’ll say only that, for Sharon especially, there’s a growing sense of joy and authenticity found in anarchic disregard for good behavior.
In the final scenes, the play grows more interesting, and so do the performances. Watching Childs and Gonglewski here is both pleasurable and frustrating, since we know how good they could and should be throughout.
Instead, for far too much of the action, director Harriet Power’s highly performative production keeps the show cruising along with sitcom glibness.
Most of the opening night audience was audibly and, I’m sure, genuinely enjoying themselves. For me, it was a mixed bag. The best of The Roommate validated the company’s strengths. I’m a true believer in the talents of Childs and Gonglewski, as well as the power of 1812 to make us laugh.
But can they fully realize a tonally mixed play? On that question, I remain agnostic.
The Roommate plays through October 20th. For more information, visit the 1812 Productions website