Theatre Review: ‘The Roommates’ at American Repertory Theatre of Western New York

There are plenty of “buddy” shows on stage, but local playwright Mark Humphrey’s “The Roommates” isn’t your typical “three guys in a man cave” show.

Humphrey’s script has some clever language and his plot takes some interesting twists.

This is a world and regional premiere and it’s suited to this small stage. Even the music bleeding in through the walls from tavern next store lent some authenticity to the ramshackle off-the-beaten path apartment where broke gambler Paul (Michael Starczynski) is hiding out from loan-shark Elliot (Brett Klaczyk). The story is a simple one: Paul is behind in paying off his gambling debt. Elliot shows up one night to collect and brings along his sideman Booke,  menacingly portrayed by Victor Morales. Elliot leaves. Paul and Booke start to bond over books, TV shows, college memories, and the psychological intrigue behind the popular team building exercise,the trust fall. And then it gets real. And real weird.

Starczynski is fine as fumbling, quivering Paul, investment manager gone sleazy and ace poker player “until the cards went cold.” Gambling was his hobby until it turned into his obsession (a disease, he says) and he uses his status as a financial planner as his personal piggy-bank until he’s found out.  The second act shows the depth of his skill, as his character dynamic completely changes.

Klaczyk has the smooth moves of the underworld down pat. Finely dressed with a silk handkerchief keeping his finger prints off the doorknob and cell phone, he uses his voice as his first weapon and modulates his volume to invoke surprise. A classic and very worthy maneuver.

Morales – as always –  steals every scene (although on opening night, he seemed to struggle over a few dropped lines) with his tall and commanding frame, piercing eyes, and “fearless and fearsome” (as he says of his character) demeanor. This trio is tight and they move through Humphrey’s story with a bit of wariness. Maybe they miss the tension, too.

Humphrey’s script has some clever language (“one word: embezzler, close to the word imbecile” comes to mind), and his plot takes some interesting twists. I love a good psychological thriller (I can see “Sleuth” and “The Mousetrap,” twenty more times and still get breathless), and while “The Roommates” has some of those elements, that edginess just isn’t there. True, there are startling moments and director Drew McCabe takes full advantage of them, but you aren’t always on the edge of your proverbial seat.  The set, too, has the requisite shabbiness of a hideout, but the eggplant and hot pink paint job is just odd, especially with a vintage china cabinet and random tchotchkees piled in and on it on one wall. One thing to note in the printed program: the place is described as Elliot’s apartment: it’s really Paul’s. Elliott is that strange knock at the door that leads us to the start of our story.

Running Time: 90 Minutes with a 15 minute intermission.

“The Roommates” – the regional and world premiere – is onstage September 7-23, 2017 at American Repertory Theatre of Western New York. For more information, click here.