When Sara Ruhl’s play The Clean House begins we are confronted with a character in a spotlessly clean all white house telling a rather long and apparently very funny joke in Portuguese. There are no subtitles, but we know the joke is funny from the character’s demonstrative body language and the enjoyable relish with which she embellishes her tale.We soon learn that she is Matilde (Vanessa Aspillaga) the Brazilian maid of Lane (Blair Brown) a cleanliness obsessed workaholic doctor, who freely admits, “I did not go to medical school to clean my o
wn house,” and herein is one of the comedy’s central conflicts. Matilde soon confesses to us that she doesn’t like to clean; in fact cleaning makes her depressed, so much so that she would much prefer to spend her time discovering the world’s funniest joke.Virginia (Jill Clayburgh) Lane’s sister, who uses cleaning to make herself feel better insists that, “People who give up the privilege of cleaning their own houses are insane people,” and comes to Matide’s rescue by offering to clean her sister’s home for her.
When Lane realizes to her horror that Virginia has been cleaning her house instead of Matilde, she fires the maid, but events turn even bleaker when the three discover Charles (John Dossett), Lane’s surgeon husband, is having an affair with Ana (Concetta Tomei) his 67 year old breast cancer patient, who the surgeon believes to be his soul mate.
The first act is a tidy set up for the second act, which makes an abrupt change after the intermission. The soap opera comedy becomes decidedly surreal sprinkled with what feels like all sorts of contrivances as the story attempts to tackle some serious questions about love and commitment and the real meaning of friendship. The focus shifts onto Ana’s illness and how the other’s attempt to cope with their respective dilemmas and Ana’s impact on their lives.
The spotless Clean House of the title becomes littered figuratively with trash and cluttered with provocative ideas as the characters struggle to make meaning out of their impact on one another.
The handsome production that is being staged at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater under Bill Rauch’s cute direction suffers from a lack of subtlety that is one of the evening’s biggest problems. The performances and, indeed, the entire proceedings feel forced and obvious. The play has been turned into a contemporary screwball farce without a lived in quality. The actor’s don’t seem to be relating to each other, but instead displaying qualities that feel imposed upon them by the director. The overall effect is to distance us from the action instead of bringing us into the story.
Sarah Ruhl’s play, which was the runner up for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, comes to Lincoln Center with considerably high expectations. The play has been touring the country to much acclaim and the 32 year old playwright was a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.
The set design by Christopher Acebo and the lighting by James F. Ingalls are dazzling and dramatic, but unfortunately are the most memorable aspects of the evening. Sarah Ruhl is definitely a playwright with great promise and her Clean House is crammed with imaginative even thought provoking ideas that unfortunately don’t add up to compelling or even involving theatre. At its best Clean House is an admirable failure but with all the encouragement Ruhl has received she’s bound to get it right sooner or later. One thing is for certain, we are sure to hear more from her.
gordin & christiano
The Clean House is now playing at The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street at Broadway. For tickets call 212-239-6200 or visit the theatre box office.
Originally Published in Dan's Papers