Oscar and Felix.
Perhaps there is no more famous odd couple than the two Neil Simon characters, Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, who became roommates and dazzled Broadway and television audiences half a century ago.
Now along comes another odd couple in “The Roommate,” a play written by Jen Silverman and getting a production under the direction of Suzan Fete at Renaissance Theaterworks.
The play and television series were fluffy situation comedies starring Walter Matthau and Art Carney in the play and Jack Klugman and Jack Lemmon in the television show. The actors carried the show.
The premise was a simple one. Oscar was a slob divorcee who spent his days and nights wrapped up in his sportswriting. Felix was a neat and fastidious nerd who wrote straight news and moved in with Oscar as his marriage crashed on the rocks.
There was no subtext to Simon’s work. Nothing deep or dark or thoughtful. It was funny fluff, the classic stuff during the heyday of the situation comedy.
In her reworking of the theme, Silberman has written a slender play full of gags and jokes and laugh out loud humor that is a pleasant 100 minutes but falls well short of anything full of meaning or matching the pre-show claim that this is a show that is a dark comedy about what it takes to reroute your life – and what happens when the wheels come off.
There is a lot of comedy but very little dark, with the exception of a tear-jerking ending that feels manipulative after all this time we spent laughing.
Sharon (Isabel Quintero) is a 50-ish Iowa housewife, recently divorced and living alone in her Iowa City house. She needs a roommate and one arrives in the person of Robyn (Marti Gobel), also 50-ish, a lesbian refugee from the Bronx.
For Sharon rap is the Saran she uses to cover leftover casseroles. For Robyn rap is the slam poetry that defines a part of her life. Sharon is white, domestic and frantic. Robyn is black, a vegan and cool, oh so cool.
The earliest moments are the tipoff that this whole thing is going to be an exercise in one joke after another, held loosely together by the story of how these two become friends.
Despite the heroic performance by Ms. Gobel, a transcendent actor who can lift a sunken Titanic of a play back to the seas where it can float, this one just never grabbed hold of my heart.
Perhaps the biggest hole in the script was dug by Ms. Quintera who played Sharon as the most neurotic and crazy lady who ever lived among the cornstalks of Iowa. Nobody could possibly be as frenetic and uncomfortable as this Sharon.
Credibility is a critical element of any play, comedy or tragedy. The audience has to believe in the characters on the stage.
Robyn is believable, Sharon is not.
A triumph for the script, however, is the fact that even though they jokes are so transparent that you see them coming from a mile away, they still made me – and the rest of the audience – laugh.
Robyn sits at the kitchen table rolling a joint that she calls medicinal herbs. You can tell that it won’t be long until Sharon tokes and she does, she gets high, and she loves it. It’s very very funny.
Sharon helps move a box into the house, sneaks a look and you just know she’s going to find something surprising. She does and it leads to the next ongoing joke that runs through the final 20 minutes of the play or so.
You know that there is going to be some kind of lesbian thing happening and, indeed, a drunk Sharon plants a kiss right on Robyn’s lips after the two slow dance together.
And, as you might expect since the play actually has to come to an end sometime, Robyn leaves and we are left with this ending, with the actors apart and obviously begging for tears, or at least a sniffle or two.
This funny play would have left a much more meaningful impression of Ms. Silverman had stuck to the comedy. When you spend an entire evening smiling and laughing, asking us to choke up for the last three minutes just feels like cheating.
Cast: Sharon, Isabel Quintero; Robyn, Marti Gobel.
Production credits: Director, Suzan Fete; Stage Manager, Bailey Wegner; Technical Director, Anthony Lyons; Lighting Designer, Sarah Hamilton; Scenic Designer, Madelyn Lee; Co-Props Master, Melissa Centgraf; Co-Props Master, Simone Tegge; Sound Design, Sarah Ramos; Costume Design, Amy Horst; Production Photographer, Ross E. Zentner.