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'The Roommate': When an 'Odd Couple' story shifts toward 'Breaking Bad'

'The Roommate': When an 'Odd Couple' story shifts toward 'Breaking Bad'
A timid Iowa homemaker (Linda Gehringer, left) embarks on an exhilarating but dangerous journey of self-transformation under the influence of her shady new roommate (Tessa Auberjonois). (Debora Robinson / South Coast Repertory)

The shortage of meaty stage roles for women in their 50s is a problem that up-and-coming playwright Jen Silverman tackles head-on in her breakout 2015 dramedy, "The Roommate,"  making a well-cast West Coast debut  at South Coast Repertory.

In the aftermath of a failed marriage and the departure of an adult son who wants nothing to do with her, timid Iowa City homemaker Sharon (Linda Gehringer) is facing not just an empty nest but an empty life. Sharon's squeaky-clean provincial attitudes aren't doing her any favors either, but in an uncharacteristically adventurous gambit she's taken in a lodger, sight unseen.

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The new roommate turns out to be Robyn (Tessa Auberjonois), a recently transplanted New Yorker who couldn't be Sharon's more temperamental opposite: a gay, vegan slam poet who evasively claims she's moved to Iowa just because she "likes to grow things" — and has brought along the funny-looking plants to prove it. "Herbs only become drugs when a capitalist economy gets involved," she says, breezily brushing off Sharon's concerns of horticultural legality.

The whimsical setup might suggest we're heading into a modern descendant of "The Odd Couple," but there's a more slyly subversive agenda in play as Robyn's emerging secrets lure Sharon into breaking bad.

Under the direction of Martin Benson, Gehringer and Auberjonois deliver vivid, engaging performances highlighting the keen intelligence with which the playwright charts this journey of self-transformation, albeit with the limitations of a much younger perspective. The characters' desperation and some of their improbable choices are sketched from a stage of life observed and imagined rather than lived.

Even when punching above her dramaturgical weight, however, Silverman is an emerging talent to be reckoned with. Particularly impressive is her unsentimental insight into the risks of radical reinvention: Sharon's belief that "everybody wants to … just burn it down and start over" has potentially dangerous consequences for an Iowa divorcee — or a nation, for that matter.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

"The Roommate"

Where: South Coast Repertory's Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; ends Jan. 22 (check for exceptions)

Tickets: $30-$79

Information: (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Follow The Times' arts team @culturemonster.

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