Jen Silverman

Switching Gears in Middle-age: The Roommate opens at Long Wharf

Preview of The Roommate, Long Wharf Theatre

Mike Donahue is a Yale School of Drama graduate back in New Haven to direct Jen Silverman’s The Roommate at Long Wharf Theatre, which begins its run tonight until November 4th. Donahue directed the premiere of the play at the Humana festival in Louisville in 2015. Last season he directed Silverman’s The Moors at Playwrights Realm in New York, and his acclaimed production of Silverman’s Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties recently closed at MCC, New York. So one could say he is familiar with Silverman’s work and her knack for, as he put it, “setting up expectations, then quietly, delicately subverting them.”

During his time at YSD, Donahue served as the artistic director of the Yale Summer Cabaret for two seasons, a good background for the diverse range of plays Donahue has directed. In style, The Roommate could be called a bit of a bait and switch. Sharon, a middle-aged woman, now divorced and living alone in Iowa, takes in a roommate, Robyn. You’re thinking maybe a female Odd Couple? Or maybe a plot with a mysterious man in it—like the late romance of last season’s Fireflies at Long Wharf? Donahue says the play “seems naturalistic” initially, but tends toward the absurdist style of theater he prefers. One thing that interested Donahue in the play is the fact that it’s about mature women and “not vis à vis men, the characters are not defined by relations to men.”


The play was reworked for its run last year at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, which Donahue also directed. The goal each time, for the director, is to see the work anew, through the process of collaboration. “So much is about the particular chemistry of the two people playing the two characters, finding different layers of who they are.” In the Long Wharf production Tasha Lawrence plays Robyn, the role she originated at Humana, and Sharon is played by Long Wharf veteran Linda Powell (Our Town, A Doll’s House). For Donahue, the play is “about the power of transformation,” what happens when people not alike find something they can share, to find out “how another person sees you.”

While the play is “very, very funny, it goes to places,” Donahue said, “very sharp, with an edge.” Those viewers who saw Silverman’s The Moors at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2016 will remember the play’s surprising comedy, and its dark and rich irony as it subverted a Gothic tale with its wild sense of comic situations. For Donahue, Silverman’s plays have “real heart, and a strong sense of language that is tonally off-kilter,” a quality that attracts him to her work. She’s “incredibly funny and unbelievably talented” and he finds “thrills in the turns her plays take.”

Revisiting the play at Long Wharf’s mainstage takes the play closer to its earliest incarnation at the Actors’ Theatre in Louisville where it was done completely in the round. Each staging “changes the dynamic,” Donahue says, but each new staging has to find the “kind of spark” that makes theater “transcendent and overwhelming.”

Mike Donahue

Mike Donahue

The Roommate kicks off the Long Wharf 2018-19 season, described as “a comedy about what it takes to re-route your life—and what happens when the wheels come off.”


The Roommate
By Jen Silverman
Directed by Mike Donahue

Long Wharf Theatre
October 10-November 4, 2018

For my review of The Roommate at Long Wharf, go to the New Haven Independent, here.

Three New Plays Find Readings This Weekend

Preview: Contemporary American Voices Festival, Long Wharf Theatre, October 20-22, 2017

In its third year, the Contemporary American Voices Festival at the Long Wharf Theatre is a growing event and one of the more welcome local theater presentations. It showcases new work, most often plays that haven’t received full productions or which are undergoing further work. The dramatic readings, with each play matched to a director who is often already an admirer of the play, let audiences in on the process of how plays develop.

Long Wharf Literary Manager Christine Scarfuto chooses the plays for presentation and sees the Festival as a helpful event both for playwrights and for the Long Wharf, contributing to the theater’s reputation for new work and giving younger playwrights greater visibility.

“New work is the lifeblood of the theater. It’s what keeps the art form vital and alive. And how better to support new work than to give opportunities to today’s most exciting young writers?” Scarfuto said. She reads 100-150 new plays to find the three that will be presented on Long Wharf’s Stage II, this Friday through Sunday.

In selecting the plays, Scarfuto draws on a network of literary managers and playwrights. Key to her consideration is “where the plays are at.” Some may be programmed for future productions, some may be brand new, with no production yet scheduled, others may have had a production but are in search of an opportunity to revisit the script. Several of the plays featured during the first two festivals have gone onto to award-winning productions. In general, as Scarfuto put it, “the plays are really in good shape, almost ready for production.” The Long Wharf festival gives them an important opportunity to let audiences into the room.



The schedule this year is:

Passage, by Christopher Chen, directed by Saheem Ali, on Friday, October 20, at 7 p.m.

Poor Edward, by Jonathan Payne, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, on Saturday, October 21, at 7 p.m.

All the Roads Home, by Jen Silverman, directed by Lee Sunday Evans, on Sunday, October 22, at 3 p.m.

Christopher Chen, Scarfuto said, is the author of one her favorite newer plays. Caught, which was included in the 2016-17 season at the Yale Cabaret, is a “really smart” play that asks some probing questions about art and politics in the globalized world. In Passage, Chen’s play at this year’s Festival, seven actors take on twelve roles. The play adapts elements of E. M. Forster’s 1924 novel A Passage to India for “a new view of colonialism,” Scarfuto said. Set in “two imagined countries” in order to undermine “preconceived notions,” the play, Scarfuto said “is really about perceptions and prejudice.”

Christopher Chen’s plays include The Hundred Flowers Project (The Glickman Award and Rella Lossy Award), The Late Wedding, Mutt, Caught (The Obie Award and The Barrymore Award) and You Mean To Do Me Harm. Other honors include the Lanford Wilson Award; the Sundance Institute/Time Warner Fellowship; and the Paula Vogel Playwriting Award. A San Francisco native, Chen is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley, and holds an M.F.A. in play-writing from San Francisco State. He is currently resident playwright at Crowded Fire Theatre Company.

Jonathan Payne is a playwright Scarfuto has known for a while through friends. Currently a student at Julliard, Payne works with the homeless as a social worker in New York city. His play at this year’s Festival, Poor Edward, follows the fortunes of Opal and Eddie, two homeless persons who share a hovel in a homeless community that is about to be bull-dozed. Scarfuto described the two-person play as “dark and funny,” combining elements of some of Scarfuto’s favorite playwrights: Suzan-Lori Parks, Edward Albee, and Samuel Beckett. Payne, Scarfuto said, has “a really exciting imagination” and his play adapts a Czech fairytale about a tree root into a story about contemporary social issues.

Jonathan Payne's work has been produced and developed at the Tristan Bates Theatre (UK), Ars Nova, Fringe Festival NYC, The Bushwick Star, and the Fire This Time Festival. He has been a fellow at New Dramatists, Playwrights Realm and The Dramatist Guild, as well as an Ars Nova Play Group member 2014-15. Awards include the Princess Grace Award (2015), Holland New Voices Award (2014), Rosa Parks Award (2011), John Cauble Short Play Award (2002). He holds a BA from the GSA Conservatoire (UK) and an MFA in Playwriting from Tisch School of the Arts, and now attends the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program at the Juilliard School.

Jen Silverman’s The Moors, at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2016, showed a striking ear in its dialogue and visited a revisionist sense of the Gothic story on the situation of women across class and education and erotic inclination. All the Roads Home considers the legacy of parent to child across three generations of “headstrong women,” from the 1930s to the present. Scarfuto called the play “moving, poignant, and heart-warming” with the “off-beat comedic tone” that made The Moors so successful. The play, which includes live music with two guitars, addresses sacrifice, the influence of the past, and “fighting for your dreams.”

Jen Silverman’s theater work includes The Moors (Yale Rep premiere, off-Broadway with The Playwrights Realm, Susan Smith Blackburn finalist); The Roommate (Actor’s Theatre of Louisville premiere, produced across the U.S. including South Coast Rep, Williamstown Theatre Festival and upcoming at Steppenwolf); and Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties (Woolly Mammoth premiere). She is a member of New Dramatists, an affiliated artist with the Playwrights Center and SPACE on Ryder Farm, and is a two-time MacDowell fellow, recipient of an NYFA grant, the Helen Merrill Award, the Yale Drama Series Award, and the 2016-2017 Playwrights of New York fellowship. She was educated at Brown, Iowa Playwrights Workshop, and Juilliard.

Tickets are $10 for each play, or all three readings for $25. Reservations can be made by calling 203-787-4282 or visiting  There will be a happy hour with half-priced drinks an hour before the beginning of each reading, and a Talk Back after each reading, with the respective playwright.

The festival is sponsored by the Burry Fredrik Foundation, Helen Kauder and Barry Nalebuff, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Contemporary American Voices Festival
Long Wharf Theatre
October 20-22, 2017

Method and Madness on the Moors

Review of The Moors at Yale Repertory Theatre

Jen Silverman’s The Moors, directed by Jackson Gay, at the Yale Repertory Theatre, is brilliant stuff. The play revisits the familiar tropes of Gothic fiction with a sharp sense of the absurd: the sweet and well-meaning governess summoned to a grand manor house on the desolate moors; the peremptory lady of the house, the mysterious master of the estate—her brother; another sister, who pines after literary fame; the surly menial who no doubt knows more than she says, and who may be “with child” or with typhus, or both. Into such a fraught setting, which might do well as the basis for campy comedy or a revisiting of melodrama, Silverman drops dialogue that feels bracingly contemporary, with traces of Beckett and Stoppard. Which is to say that the lines are acerbic, funny, and tend to ride the play’s quizzical rhythms like a moor-hen on a stiff breeze.

The cast of The Moors

The cast of The Moors

One of the most successful conceits here is a philosophical dog, a morose Mastiff (Jeff Biehl) who eventually becomes fixated on a charming but flighty Moor-Hen (Jessica Love). Pet of the late parson, the sisters’ father, the Mastiff wants to encounter God and takes the Moor-Hen to be an emissary from the supreme being. Their exchanges have a kind of elemental purity that makes us aware of how queasy speech is as a means to arrive at any kind of understanding.  As different species, the Mastiff and Moor-Hen cannot share a world view any more than they can mate. But Silverman makes them emblematic of the more alarming aspects of attachment, particularly the hopeless or domineering variety.

A Moor-Hen (Jessica Love), The Mastiff (Jeff Biehl)

A Moor-Hen (Jessica Love), The Mastiff (Jeff Biehl)

The attachments on display among the humans also depend upon negotiations with certain possibilities in language, and it is attention to language that makes The Moors such a well-crafted delight. Cold and rigorous Agatha (Kelly McAndrew) might be called “manly” in terms of the times, but she’s also a woman who knows her own mind; she tells the simpering governess, Emilie (Miriam Silverman), “you have been handed limitations, which you accepted.” As unlikely as she may be as a mentor, Agatha manages to seduce the governess in part by means of the letters that brought Emilie to the manor, written as though in the hand of master Branwell, Agatha's brother. The two enact a mistress/maid relationship that makes manifest the kind of sexual dynamic that tends to lurk more latent in typical Gothic fiction.

Emilie (Miriam Silverman), Agatha (Kelly McAndrew)

Emilie (Miriam Silverman), Agatha (Kelly McAndrew)

And once that note is sounded, the roles of the other two women become clearer as antagonists to Agatha’s erotic reign, which entails, in lurid Gothic fashion, a scheme of using Branwell as the means for an heir via Emilie, in a kind of incest by proxy. The other sister, Huldey (Birgit Huppuch), styles herself an author, and a famous one at that, because she keeps a journal full of her unimaginative unhappiness, and, in Agatha’s scheme of things, is decidedly de trop.  The maid, Marjory (Hannah Cabell), has other designs and finds Huldey an apt enough dunce for her plans. In essence, then, there are two strong-willed characters, Agatha and Marjory, both played with subtle shadings, and two weaker characters, Huldey, a fulsome comic role, and Emilie, more or less our heroine and avatar in this uncertain situation.

Huldey (Birgit Huppuch), Marjory (Hannah Cabell)

Huldey (Birgit Huppuch), Marjory (Hannah Cabell)

Another nice touch is the character of Marjory. As parlor maid, she is called Mallory and is pregnant, due to the master’s inclinations we assume; as scullery maid, she is called Marjory and suffers from typhus. The blending of both in one, besides a recurring joke, is also a way of attesting to the slippery nature of roles—social, sexual, dramatic.  Eventually we hear Marjory’s voice in her own journalizing only to realize that she is the most interesting of the four.

And what is our heroine’s role? In a brief exchange between the sisters early on, Huldey asks why a governess is needed when “there is nothing to govern,” an assertion that Agatha gently mocks. Is Emilie to be Agatha’s creature, surrogate mother to the heir, a confidante for lonely Huldey, as the latter hopes, or the eventual mistress of the moors?

Along the way, there is the insipidity of Huldey for amusement, the oddly touching amour between Mastiff and Moor-Hen, sudden violence, and a show-stopping murder ballad. There’s also Alexander Woodward’s wonderful set that gives us both a creepy manor house, complete with secret door, and the moody moors, and eventually a half-and-half of the two that creates a visual commentary on how much the effect of the outside is coming inside. Lighting, costumes and sound design and excellent casting all contribute to making the show’s mix of the comic and the creepy work so well.

With its quizzical tone, The Moors establishes a world of shifting possibility—nothing is as it seems, and nothing will change, but everything will be different. Slyly fascinating, The Moors is first-rate entertainment.


The Moors
By Jen Silverman
Directed by Jackson Gay

Scenic Designer: Alexander Woodward; Costume Designer: Fabian Fidel Aguilar; Lighting Designer: Andrew F. Griffin; Sound Designer and Original Music: Daniel Kluger; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Production Dramaturg: Maria Inês Marques; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting; Stage Manager: Avery Trunko

Cast: Jeff Biehl, Hannah Cabell, Birgit Huppuch, Jessica Love, Kelly McAndrew, Miriam Silverman

Yale Repertory Theatre
January 29-February 20, 2016