Lust for Life
PacRep rolls up its sleeves in Sarah Ruhl’s romantic (and philosophical) comedy The Clean House.
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Sarah Ruhl’s Pulitzer-nominated 2006 comedy The Clean House opens with monologues from its first three women – Brazilian transplant and newly arrived housemaid Matilde, her employer and successful doctor, Lane, and Lane’s kooky sister Virginia – introducing themselves to us beneath a supertitle projection of their names. Matilde (Rami Margron), for instance, tells us an extended joke in Portuguese, the animated delivery itself, if not the meaning, tickling some in the audience.
The opening tells us a lot about Ruhl’s M.O. She’ll use shorthand when necessary; she’ll breach the fourth wall at will; and things might get conceptual.
When Matilde reminisces about her parents, two actors play out her memories on a smaller elevated stage. We learn that for a year, Matilde’s father concocted the funniest joke in the world. When he told it to her mother, she died of laughter. Then he shot himself.
It gets funnier. Matilde came to the States to clean the house in which we find her, though she, too, wants to follow her father’s example and create the funniest joke in the world. Lane (Julie Hughett), in a smart white suit, just wants her to clean her house, a modern, white, sterile place: “I’m sorry,” Lane says, “but I did not go to medical school to clean my own house.”
While Lane is stiff and somewhat controlling, her sister Virginia (MaryAnn Rousseau) is neurotically ditzy. Both seem warped by the strictures of their class, though Virginia, whose loveless marriage leaves her unfulfilled, is first to connect with the earthy Matilde.
“I like to clean,” Virginia tells Matilde. “You don’t like to. I’ll clean for you.”
All this business about cleaning mirrors the emotional vacuum in the sisters’ “privileged” lives. When Lane finds out that Virginia is secretly cleaning her house, she tells her sister, “You have better things to do than clean my house.”
“How do you know?” Virginia replies.
The women’s triangle is invaded by a pair of red thong panties discovered among Lane’s white laundry that aren’t hers. Virginia and Matilde, bonding further, suspect Lane’s work-consumed plastic surgeon husband, Charlie (Remi Sandri), is cheating.
“He probably puts it in his pocket and forgets,” Matilde imagines. “And she walks around with no underwear. And she likes it.”
“In a hospital?” Virginia says. “That’s unsanitary.”
Charlie’s cheating, alright. But the way he sees it, he’s cheating himself if he doesn’t pursue the love he’s found in his soul mate, Ana, a 57-year-old Argentinian woman he’s treating for breast cancer. He’s delirious over her, joyously introducing Ana to everyone.
Everyone accepts Ana (Dena Martinez), in their own way. Matilde gabs with her in Portuguese; Virginia offers her coffee and sympathy; Lane is seething but civil. It’s like Ruhl’s exploring some theories here: Does upheaval bring us closer? And what is happiness?
All this is orchestrated with deft, daffy, satirical and merry comedy that had the Circle Theatre audience rumbling with laughs. Ruhl delivers commentary through the characters that swerves around feminism and sisterhood, the pursuit of happiness, death, love, sex, class. She packs a lot into these two acts by fast forwarding past exposition and jumping to the punchline of each scene, like an abridged version of a longer play. Or a film. It works because the play is metaphorical on one level, while staying grounded in stuff we know.
“This is how I imagine my husband and his mistress,” Lane tells us, and they appear on the smaller stage, acting out her words like stage directions. “He kisses her right breast.” It’s a tender, sexy, poetic scene, like a fantasy but with a painful twist – she’s not in it. Then, the surreal: Matilde walks in and asks Lane who those people are. “It is my husband and the woman he loves. Don’t worry, it’s just my imagination.”
Margron, as Matilde, is physical and loose, radiates emotion, laughs heartily. But as Ruhl has written her, she’s more of a catalyst in the lives of the WASPy Lane and Virginia. Not a new concept: simple, emotional brown people showing repressed, privileged white people how to live fuller, more spirited lives. But Ruhl, who’s won an NAACP Image Award, redeems that stock turn with the dimensions of a story that keep unfolding and unfolding, the smart and well-aimed comedy, and her nearly too broad ambition. The dialogue gets obtuse (“We did not feel guilty because [our love] was so objective,” Ana tells Lane), but makes sense in Ruhl’s abbreviated world.
The supertitles, like captions above a comic strip, inform us on what’s happening. They inform the characters, too. When Lane sees the super that reads “Lane makes a house call to Ana,” she slumps slightly and dutifully obeys.
All the actors approach their characters with a satisfying balance of fidelity and self-deprecation, especially Hughett, who sinks deeper into Lane’s vulnerability and humanity later in the play.
The Clean House is a wily thing to grasp. The tone is like a group of women getting together, drinking wine and trying to sort out life. I’m still trying to sort out its multiple messages. One, though, is that love, like a good joke, should be shared with others. Which sounds mushy, but you should hear how Ruhl and director John Rousseau tell it. It’s all in the delivery.