If you’ve lived in New York City, you probably have an outrageous roommate story to tell. These are complicated relationships to navigate and finances before all else usually dictates how you end up in them. No matter how much someone says they are really neat and care about being a good roommate, people can only be who they are. The person who always cleans the dishes will end up losing their mind over the people who don’t and the people who don’t will not recognize it’s an issue.
Hello, I was the resentful dish cleaner.
In Lily Akerman’s play The Commons, four people are sharing an apartment and the tiny acts of neglect and inconsiderateness are adding up. Robyn (Ben Newman) has been living here for 20 years and sees his entire personality wrapped up in a co-habitating lifestyle. He goes so far to question why married people live together or why couples move in together when shared living with housemates is the way to go. Naturally, he’s still single and does not understand why people keep rotating out of this arrangement. Dee (Julia Greer) is furiously trying to work on her dissertation which is not going well. Janira (Olivia Khoshatefeh) goes overboard Konmari-ing things that don’t belong to her. Cliff (Ben Katz) is new to the house and he constantly expresses support for their communal ideas while being incapable of acting on any of them. It is a recipe for conflict.
But Akerman cannot get that conflict to escalate. Like a series of passive aggressive notes roommates leave for each other, the play frequently uses scenes where one roommate confronts the group over an issue with no one taking responsibility for the bad acts or someone shares a concern that is met with confusion or resistance–dishes filling the sink, beard hair clippings in the bathroom, everyone eating the bread you made and no one ever baking in return. Tension is never alleviated, it is merely delayed until another day. While true to life, it starts to eat away at the play itself.
Like a lot of roommate situations, it’s the petty, small stuff that reaches a boiling point and brings down the group. While believable and real, this doesn’t make for great theater. Daily minutiae and small wins and losses can be built into something meaningful (see the work of Annie Baker), here the scope does not expand beyond what is before us.
There are only a few bits of this story that touch on something bigger but they are too brief and few—a furious flare-up over someone accusing another of having “family money,” a struggle to sell one’s art, where their co-habitation philosophies come from. While these issues could illustrate the surface tensions with something deeper, they do not. Even the lockdown terror of having a rodent in the apartment—a surefire way to bring everyone’s vulnerabilities to the surface—does not take the storytelling to the next level.
Mixing things up with a fifth character brings a little verve into the proceedings but it disappears with her exit. We are left with too many questions about the characters and only the start of something interesting. The character portraits are thin, begging for layers. Director Emma Miller’s production relies mostly on realism with only one moment of something expressionistic—a dance break that does not reveal much. However, a thin-apartment-walls-overheard-roommate-sex scene was truly funny. The performers generally handle the roles well. Katz embodies the irritating hangnail personality that is Cliff. Khoshatefeh is bubbly and expressive but underused.
The Hearth, which previously produced Athena, is a company dedicated to female artists of the next generation and here they have supported their goal. But it was a play I wished had more to say.
I kept thinking of all the roommate stories I could tell–the time my roommate ended up in the hospital with a burst appendix when we were all away for a holiday weekend, the division of duties over who handled dead mice, how many roommates can leap up on a futon sofa and scream with a broom in hand when a live mouse makes an appearance, where did that weird doll come from that we found at the back of closet that one time, the death threats we got from the “Tomato Brigade” when we had a very tame roof party, the wonderful strippers I lived with and the one who demonstrated her skills in our living room.
The specificity of my own memories made me long for The Commons to go beyond basic universal squabbles to something more precise, unique, and moving.