The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl – Los Angeles Theater Review
NEW THEATER IN AMERICA: PART ONE
by Harvey Perr
published May 26, 2010
The Clean House
now playing in Los Angeles at the Odyssey Theater
through July 3
Lane is a doctor who likes her house to be as clean and as antiseptic as a, well, as a hospital room. But Lane
doesn’t want to clean it herself. She can, in fact, afford to pay others to do so. But her new Brazilian maid, Matilde (who makes certain
you get that pronunciation correct) doesn’t really like to clean. She has fled to America in order to be a stand-up comedienne and find the
perfect joke and is working merely for the money. But Lane’s sister, Virginia (with whom Lane has had a serious sibling rivalry that goes
back to their unimaginable childhood), on the other hand, loves to clean houses. Her life seems meaningless when she isn’t making the life
around her spic and span. So Virginia makes a pact with Matilde, to do with love that which Matilde hates. And Matilde can spend her
new-found free time in pursuit of that perfect joke, which is deeply connected to the happy memory of her mother literally laughing herself
to death when told a joke by her father who, immediately after telling the joke and seeing his wife at peace, dies himself. The ghosts of
her parents do not haunt Matilde; they dance in and around her head like a couple in a silent movie, laughing and gently jabbing each other
in the ribs.
Meanwhile, Lane’s husband, Charles, who is also a doctor, has fallen in love with a much older
woman, Ana, whose life he has saved in delicate surgery, and who has proven to be his blessed other half even before the fateful surgery,
because, of course, she represents Life, even in the midst of death, while his life represents a living death. Charles is so thrilled with
the love he has found that, naturally (or unnaturally), he wants to share that love with Lane,
Matilde, and Virginia, or, one should say, with the other members of the cast. The world outside never sets foot into Lane’s clean house.
Oh, I shouldn’t say that. Charles does go to Alaska in search of a yew tree which will restore health to Ana should she suffer a relapse,
which she does, alas, during his absence.
If this reviewer has told too much, it is because, I’m afraid, that is all there is, folks. Every hidden meaning,
every aphorism which Sarah Ruhl, in her play The Clean House, dots her play with derives from
that brief outline. She is taking on the big subjects – Life and Death – and, in all fairness, manages a nifty observation or two, but, in
general, most of what she has to say is pretty clear and predictable. She does add a dollop of whimsy, which will either enchant you or
make you gag, depending on your taste for that particular ingredient.
When a play is this arch and airless and self-conscious, it needs to go either to comic extremes
or to a frightening reality, but when the production plays into the script’s surface, as the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble production does, what
you come up with is, well, arch and airless and self-conscious. We can start with Frederica Nascimento’s set design, which starts off being
the worst kind of decorative art – pretty but with no real perspective – and then, in the second act, when she must contrast Lane’s clean
house with the romantic retreat where Charles and Ana live in harmony– which should be resplendent with the vital juices of passion – she
gives us a Crayola fantasy as fake as the antiseptic house he has escaped from. Unless, of course, that is the point. And I don’t think it
is the point.
One cannot blame the actors entirely for their sterile performances, enslaved as
they are by Stefan Kruck’s anemic and unimaginative direction. But, then again, a theater does not put a play like The Clean House on its season’s schedule out of a passionate commitment to art, but rather out of an
impassionate commitment to fashion. Sarah Ruhl has been designated the flavor of the decade. We may have to live with that until a tastier and
longer-lasting flavor comes along. If, however, Ms. Ruhl represents the future of theater, it may be time to clean house.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com
photos by Ron Sossi
for tickets, visit http://www.odysseytheatre.com/
click here to read NEW THEATER IN AMERICA: PART TWO