ST. PETERSBURG — Mismatched personality comedies will always get a laugh. Since The Odd Couple and before, sticking an uptight person with a free spirit is a recipe for success.
But there has to be a way to set it apart. That’s what playwright Jen Silverman aims for in The Roommate at American Stage, billed as Frankie and Grace meets Breaking Bad. It’s clear there will be a shift in personalities and something illegal will happen. The idea of transformation is the fresh thing here.
The two-person play pairs Sharon (Annie Fitzpatrick), a divorced housewife who needs a roommate to share her Iowa home, with Robyn (Amy Resnick), a New Yorker with a mysterious past, who has clearly moved to what she considers the middle of nowhere to make a fresh start. They’re both in their mid-50s but couldn’t be more different.
The play, directed by Kristen Clippard, is set entirely in Sharon’s home, decorated with fruit-patterned wallpaper, multiple teapots and a rocking chair. She wears sensible shoes and khakis, while Robyn sports purple hair and a rocker-hippie hybrid look.
Sharon is shocked by Robyn. She can’t believe Robyn came from the Bronx, because she’s heard it’s dangerous and “you’re a woman.” When Robyn tells her she’s a vegan, Sharon doesn’t quite know what that means. Robyn smokes pot, which Sharon lumps in with all “drugs.” In turn, Robyn picks up on Sharon’s fear of everything.
Perhaps the only way to set up a mismatch is create these caricatures. As a woman in my forties who has lived in cities my entire life, it was hard to accept the extent of Sharon’s naivete.
But the actors turn the caricatures into real people. Fitzpatrick captures Sharon’s complexities as a woman whose eternal cheer is starting to wear her out. She’s eager to please, but something is bubbling beneath the surface, coming out in bits of underlying snark. Her moments of truth are touching.
Resnick’s Robyn is clearly covering up a checkered past. She’s gruff, somewhat aloof and acts like a teenager. She’s dynamic, too, a person hiding inside herself.
Their comedic timing drew tons of laughs. They use every inch of the stage and perform real tasks like slicing apples and making coffee. They play records and in one very effective scene, dance with each other.
Once the initial onslaught of look-how-different-we-are jokes subside, the characters become more layered. Sharon comes to face the idea that her son, a designer in New York, is annoyed by her. More facts about Robyn’s past come out, too. Their back stories round out the plot.
Sharon’s descent into illicit activities are at first influenced by Robyn, but then she abruptly dives off the deep end into waters that Robyn won’t venture. Her transformation is so dramatic that it seems unbelievable, but she does it so gleefully that the audience was guffawing at her antics. And as it’s happening, a more subtle, poignant change happens in Robyn.
That change is the meaningful difference that sets this show apart from the odd couples that came before.
If you go
The Roommate runs through April 7 at American Stage. $44-$54. 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 823-7529. For showtimes, visit americanstage.org.