The Clean House 7/10 - 8/17/2008
Sarah Ruhl's play The Clean House opens with Mathilde, a Brazilian housekeeper, telling a long and very funny joke - in Portuguese. I don't understand Portuguese, and I doubt very few of my fellow audience members in Austin, TX did, either. Luckily, Mathilde's self-induced laughter, gestures, and a summary translation projected for the audience onto a screen make it easy to get the gist. The joke is dirty, and it's hilarious.
Mathilde goes on to tell the story of her parents: They were in love, and they made each other laugh. Her mother died laughing at a joke her father told, and then her father killed himself. After their deaths, Mathilde came to the United States to become a comedian. She is always trying to come up with the perfect joke, which she describes as "somewhere between an angel and a fart."
Mathilde, played by Smaranda Ciceu in this production, cleans house for Lane (Lauren Lane), a doctor who prescribes Mathilde antidepressants when she neglects the dusting and silver. Lane's sister, Virginia (Barbara Chisholm), is of the obsessive neat-freak type – à la Monica on Friends – and offers to help Mathilde out by cleaning Lane's house herself.
When Lane's husband, Charles (Tom Green), also a doctor, leaves her for an older cancer patient, Virginia and Mathilde are caught, and the plot turns to focus on the relationships that ensue. Charles, stupefied and awed by finding his soul mate Ana (Alicia Kaplan), brings her to meet everyone, and the preposterousness of the situation has Lane beside herself. At the end of the scene, Mathilde agrees to split her time between Lane's and Ana's houses (even though now everyone knows she doesn't like to clean) and joins Charles and Ana to go apple picking. Apple picking!
As Lane sulks at home, playing cards with Mathilde while Virginia continues to clean, Ana's cancer returns, and she refuses to go to the hospital. "I don't want a relationship with a disease. I want a relationship with death," she says. Charles, doing what any honorable man would, dons a parka and disappears to Alaska to find a yew tree, which he thinks has healing properties. By the time he re-enters, carrying an entire tree, Ana has died as the result of laughter induced by Mathilde's perfect joke.
The play is pretty smart. Characters that may have seemed fresher four years ago when The Clean House premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre could come off as flat and stereotypical, but the way they are manipulated by the actors makes them meta-aware of the play's symbolism. For example, in the "what-do-you-have-that-I-don't" conversation with Ana, Lane exasperates, "You have a balcony!" - a balcony being the setting for Ana's carefree, giddy life with Charles. This production was played in the round with a crisp and imaginative set by Michael Raiford
Though Dave Steakley's direction worked well during comic scenes, heated discussions between Lane and Virginia seemed overwrought and abrasive. It bothered me that Chisholm could not convincingly hold and drink from a coffee cup, although her costume, a frumpy getup straight out of a Swiffer commercial, was perfect for Virginia (costumes by Susan Branch Towne). I questioned the casting: Lauren Lane seemed to play Lane older that the script suggested, and Kaplan and Green had playfulness, but not sensuality as the lovers Charles and Ana. However, Mathilde was played superbly by the enchanting Ciceu; she was wonderfully funny, fresh, and eager. I kind of wanted to take her home too. With a friend like her, who needs a cleaning lady?