Inside a rehearsal hall at the Lyric Stage Company, two leading lights of Boston theater, Paula Plum and Adrianne Krstansky, circle each other warily but with growing affection. Playing middle-aged housemates Sharon and Robyn in Jen Silverman’s “The Roommate,” which the Lyric is presenting Oct. 19-Nov. 18, the actresses are bringing to life your quintessential odd couple, a mismatched pair who nonetheless have begun to tentatively bond. Robyn, a leather-jacket-clad lesbian slam poet from the Bronx with toughness (and secrets) to spare, has moved in with Sharon, a divorced Midwestern empty-nester who’s lived a largely sheltered existence.
In the scene Plum and Krstansky are rehearsing, nosy Sharon, played by Plum, has snooped into Robyn’s belongings and is attempting to suss out why in tarnation her new roomie has so many different driver’s licenses and what tantalizing secrets she might be hiding. The persistent Sharon wants answers. At first, Robyn is irritated. “If you ask me that and I tell you, it makes you an accomplice, so you think about whether or not you want me to answer that,” she says, with a glare. “An accomplice,” Sharon replies, sounding intrigued by the possibility.
As Sharon begins to learn more, she hops on Robyn’s roller coaster.
“It’s a twisted take on what happens when one woman influences another woman who’s at sea to an extreme degree,” says Plum. “Sharon is kind of an empty vessel waiting to be filled up. And what’s so delightful to Robyn is that this person who seems to be unimaginative on the surface turns out to have a huge imagination.”
Silverman had been thinking about writing a play featuring “women of a certain age who were not the punch line of a joke, who were not coming onstage, delivering a monologue about a man and then walking off stage,” she says over the phone from her home in Brooklyn. “I was also thinking about how sanitized the portrayals of women are in theater, film, and even television, particular once women are no longer in their early 20s. I know the women in my life in their 40s, 50s, 60 are funny, sharp, complicated, nuanced. There’s nothing about them that’s sanitized.”
Silverman describes Sharon as “someone who has submitted to a status quo in her life without any thought that there is a next chapter or a next moment of reinvention for her; whereas Robyn is someone whose entire life is about transformation.”
On the surface, Robyn appears to be a self-reliant free spirit, but she’s also elusive, guarded, and doesn’t trust easily. “She hasn’t really let anyone in,” Silverman says, “and so something about Sharon’s curiosity and generosity and lack of judgment is intoxicating in ways that eventually leak into all of the places where Robyn thought she had put up walls and barriers.”
Krstansky says she’s thrilled to be working on a play that explores what happens to women when they hit middle age and find themselves adrift and lonely. “I remember turning a certain age and going, ‘Oh, now I’m invisible. I get it. Something’s been taken away from me,’ ” she says. “But you can still be dangerous and sexy and risk-taking and all these things, and you should be more and more the older you get. So what are the ways we keep ourselves from the things that actually make us feel alive?”
As the play’s form took shape, Silverman hoped to subvert the expectations of an audience primed for what seems at first like familiar comedic territory. “The play masquerades initially as a certain kind of ‘Odd Couple’ realism but it isn’t, particularly when it’s done right,” she says. “I think there’s a loneliness, anger, and dissatisfaction at the heart of it. There is a shift in the play in which it gets darker and grittier and a little bit more dangerous and a little bit more subversive. It invites you in and then changes the rules once you’re inside it.”
Lyric Stage producing artistic director Spiro Veloudos, who’s helming this production, chose the play because it offered two juicy roles for mature, formidable actresses. (Jane Kaczmarek and S. Epatha Merkerson starred in a 2017 production of the play at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.) Plum, of course, is one of Boston’s most accomplished stage doyennes. She has a long and storied history with the Lyric dating to 1975’s “Dial M for Murder” and winning Elliot Norton Awards for her performances in 2017’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and 2007’s “Miss Witherspoon.” As for Krstansky, she’s won acclaim for a series of head-turning performances, including in the David Cromer-directed revival of “Come Back, Little Sheba” at the Huntington Theatre Company (for which she was awarded a Norton of her own), “Blackberry Winter,” “New Electric Ballroom,” and “Every Brilliant Thing.”
Krstansky, who acted with Plum in a 2010 production of Annie Baker’s “Body Awareness,” is thrilled that Veloudos gave her a shot to do something outside of her usual wheelhouse. “I usually get cast more as a Sharon,” she says. But one of her personal heroes is rocker Patti Smith, of whom Robyn is also a fan. Indeed, she says that the wild-child character is “kind of closer to who I am on the inside.”
“It’s great when you actually get to play someone who’s female and complex in their own right,” she says, “and in a play that really explores female friendship.”
As a stage actress working in a tenuous profession, Krstansky relates to Robyn’s rejection of a prescribed path. “[Acting] doesn’t fit the model of what we’re told is success in this life — career stability, financial stability, and even emotional stability. You have to be a bit of a rebel to want to do this. You have to have a lot of comfort with risk to do it long term. But I think that’s one of the reasons why actors do what we do, though — because you get to do things that you would never do in your normal life.”
Silverman, who’s a staff writer on the forthcoming Netflix revival of Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City,” observes that her plays often revolve around questions of transformation, a theme apparent in both “Dangerous House,” which ran last summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and “Collective Rage,” which just wrapped up a run off-Broadway. She says “The Roommate” asks: “Is it possible to change as a human? Are we tied to who we think we are? Or can we throw it all out the window and reinvent ourselves? And to what degree?”
Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston, Oct. 19-Nov. 18. Tickets from $25, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com