Naturally absurd

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday May 24, 2017
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Playwright Jen Silverman describes her play "The<br>Roommate" as being "like naturalism on speed." San<br>Francisco Playhouse is giving the emerging queer playwright her first Bay Area<br>production with the play about mismatched middle-aged roommates.
Playwright Jen Silverman describes her play "The
Roommate" as being "like naturalism on speed." San
Francisco Playhouse is giving the emerging queer playwright her first Bay Area
production with the play about mismatched middle-aged roommates.

When it comes to genres " well, it's best to forget genres when talking about the plays of Jen Silverman. "Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops" is populated with five wildly different variants on Betty Boop on a collision course with the contemporary world. "The Moors" starts out like a gothic potboiler, at least until a newly hired governess finds herself in a topsy-turvy Bronte world of women. And the kitchen-table setting of "The Roommate" is, in Silverman's description, "like naturalism on speed."

Silverman has been carrying the emerging-playwright label for several years, but "The Roommate" is providing her breakout moment. Since its heralded premiere at Louisville's Humana Festival in 2015, it's found its way to multiple regional theaters and is also the play that is now providing her introduction to Bay Area audiences at San Francisco Playhouse.

"Part of my experiment with 'The Roommate' was to offer the audience an accessible invitation, and then once they accept that invitation to go into increasingly complicated waters," Silverman said recently by phone. "I'm really drawn to characters who are transforming, who are in search of something a little bit out of reach. and are in a moment in their lives where something has to change."

The accessible setup finds an empty nester and recent divorcee renting a room to another middle-aged woman to fill the emptiness of her spacious home. "Iowa, it specializes in corn " and space," happy-homemaker Sharon tells the elusive Robyn, who has recently moved from New York and a past she is disinclined to share. While Sharon makes casseroles and belongs to a book club, Robyn is a pot-smoking vegan who calls herself a slam poet.

"Because Robyn mentions that she was married, Sharon assumes that she left her husband, and Robyn corrects the assumption by saying, 'No, I loved him and then it didn't work out, and also I'm gay.' Part of the discussion is how often language really doesn't describe the truth of something," Silverman said. "If you were to ask me her identity, I would say she is queer, but that's not a word she uses."

"Queer" is a word Silverman uses to describe herself. "I'm currently in a long-term relationship with a cis-gendered man, but many of my partners have been female or have been non-binary. Language is a tricky thing when it comes to identity. Part of what I like about 'queer' is its fluidity and malleability."

And many of her plays focus on queer and female characters who are more complicated than often found on stage. If you're looking for complicated, check out the subtitle for the Betty Boop play "Collective Rage": "In Essence a Queer and Occasionally Hazardous Exploration; Do You Remember When You Were in High School and Read about Shackleton and How he Explored the Arctic?; Imagine the Arctic as a Pussy and It's Sort of Like That."

But if you're looking for a coming-out play, move along, there's nothing to see here. "I've seen so many plays where the entire vehicle is for the character to come out," she said. "Self-loathing and blah-blah-blah, and I feel culturally we're past that moment. I'm interested in characters that are doing what they're doing in a story not necessarily structured around their queerness, but that is responding to their queerness."

Heterosexual males may seem to be the odd men out in Silverman's cast of characters, but she disagrees. "I have written plays in which cis-gendered male characters are as complicated and surprising as the queer and female characters, but what's interesting is that when I do write about straight cis-gendered men, they're just called plays, but when I write about women and queer characters, it becomes a queer feminist play."

Silverman experienced a lot of geographical fluidity growing up, as her family hopped around the world for her father's work as a physicist. "To me as a kid, it just felt normal," she said. "After the fact, of course, I see it as highly formative. When you're growing up like that, the first thing you learn is not that everybody is the same, but everybody's differences are interesting rather than threatening."

Her parents have been supportive, she said, of her explorations through sexual identity. "They're also very honest when they don't understand something," Silverman said. "They're scientists so they don't have a lot of bias; they have questions. They were as happy to meet my girlfriends as my boyfriends, and when they met people with different pronouns, they needed that explained, but then they were very respectful about it."

Silverman has yet to write a transparently autobiographical play, but she doesn't rule it out. "Right now, I locate myself within the characters even if the world they are in is a little bit askew," she said. "Some people have called my work 'absurdism,' but I wouldn't call it that because the characters have complicated, realistic inner lives. And I think we can all acknowledge that the world we're living in now is what one might call an absurdist world, and yet it's still real. So I think those boundaries are very fuzzy."


"The Roommate" will run at San Francisco Playhouse through July 1. Call (415) 677-9596 or go