Roommates | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader
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ROOMMATES

Upstart Theatre Company

at Puszh Studios

Remember those smug "swinger" comedies from the middle 1960s? The ones about two guys and their colliding girl problems? The ones that featured unlikely, really obnoxious pairings of actors like Jerry Lewis and Tony Curtis (the movie Boeing Boeing) or Anthony Perkins and Richard Benjamin (the play The Star-Spangled Girl) and dumb, really stereotyped female supporting roles played by women who if they weren't ex-Playboy models (like Stella Stevens) should have been? The ones that always had a nagging Jewish mother and/or maid who if she wasn't played by Thelma Ritter you couldn't tell?

Come back with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear with Roommates, a "new" comedy that features not one original moment, and barely a handful of laughs, in its mercifully brief 80 minutes (including intermission). Played on a tiny stage shoved back in a corner of a third-floor walk-up dance studio, Roommates is the story of two guys and their colliding girl problems.

Marty Rosenstein is a bus driver with a string of girlfriends. His roommate Cornelius Shuntsky, a struggling actor, can barely scrape up a one-nighter now and then; when he does, she's a real weirdo loser--a mud-wrestling biker (giggle, snicker), or even a male transvestite (snort, guffaw). Marty can't commit; Cornelius can't relax. Do they help each other with their respective problems? Do they get laid? Did Mr. Ed talk?

As it ambles toward its painfully predictable conclusion, the play dredges up numerous cliches of its genre. The two guys keep "score" of each other's wins and losses on a blackboard, fumble with groceries and laundry, and literally fall over themselves trying to answer the phone (whose dumb-cute pop-music answering-machine message is a cliche in itself). When a girl stalks angrily out of the apartment, she leaves one of her shoes behind so she can limp out exaggeratedly on one high heel. When another girl happens to drop by the apartment just when Marty is in bed with someone else--oh, those Dickensian coincidences!--Cornelius tries to distract her by grabbing her, breaking into a jitterbug, and finally kissing her (to rehearse for a play, he explains). This play is a living term paper of dated bachelor-comedy shtick--or it would be if it had any life to it. (Even a grudgingly contemporary comment about safe sex is undermined by frequent references to "social diseases.")

The mastermind responsible for all this is one Franco Ray, described in the program as "a young Chicago actor and playright [sic], who felt that there was a strong need to do more original plays in the Chicagoland area." There still is. Ray is also the show's director and producer. Of all these occupations, acting is the only one in which he shows any reasonable promise. He's good-looking and can be charming onstage; and a scene in which, as Marty, Ray actually sits down and holds a conversation with another actor is genuinely appealing. Throughout most of the play, though, Ray has directed himself to act like both Jerry Lewis and Tony Curtis in Boeing Boeing, and the effect is decidedly not pretty.

Cornelius is played by Daniel Logan, who, like Ray, is an attractive and likable actor severely mishandled here by a director whose idea of a male comic performance seems to have been developed during a Dick York/Bill Bixby/Alan Young/Jerry Van Dyke sitcom festival. Tall and physically agile, Logan generates the play's few minutes of sustained, genuine laughter near the end, when a tongue-tied, love-struck Cornelius pantomimes the cute-clumsy encounter he's just had with a real live girl. But the rest of the time he just sinks to the play's embarrassingly low level in a performance that seems built equally of Anthony Perkins and John Ritter.

Marty's Jewish mama, appallingly caricatured even by the standards of the stereotype, is played by Cynthia Armstrong. Her rhinestone-studded glasses provide the production's only real sparkle.

The "jiggle factor," as Fred Silverman might have called it in the years when he ruled TV situation comedy, is provided by Mary Louise Herrold (in the Judy Carne-Paula Prentiss role), Wendy Langlas (in the Goldie Hawn-Stella Stevens role), and Deb Siegel, as a sexy drag queen whose stimulating effect on Marty and Cornelius gives the play its one element of suspense: are they really (gasp) gay? But it turns out that what seems to be an attempt at provocativeness is an unintended red herring, the result of inept and unbalanced plot construction. No wonder Ray usually sticks to cliches; those, at least, he understands.

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