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Theatre Review by Harvey Perr
CLEANING UP THE MESS
The Clean House
opened October 30, 2006
at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center
closes December 17, 2006
Lane is a surgeon. Her house, like the clothes she wears, is just what you’d expect a surgeon’s house to be, if that surgeon were a representation of a surgeon rather than a real flesh-and-blood person who happens to be a surgeon: sanitized, white, immaculate. It is, however, not sanitized enough, not clean enough, not immaculate enough for Lane. So she hires Mathilde, a Brazilian maid, to make sure it’s kept clean. But Mathilde doesn’t like to clean house. She has come to America to become a comedienne or, rather, as she puts it, to find the perfect joke. 
Lane has a husband, the affable Charles, also a surgeon, who falls in love with Ana, a, shall we say, more mature woman, on whom he has performed radical surgery and who, he has discovered, is his soul mate. He is the sort of guy who wants to make everyone happy so he brings the gift of his new love to his discarded wife. Charles and Ana remind Mathilde of her own parents who, when they dance into her memory, do, in fact, resemble Charles and Ana. Mathilde’s father, it seems, had a way with a joke, and one of the reasons that Mathilde is in such hot pursuit of the perfect joke has something to do with the fact that her mother, while listening to one of her father’s jokes, literally died laughing.
Lane also has a sister, one Virginia, and, between them, there is a long-standing mildly serious sibling rivalry, which has left Virginia more than a little angry but a little too timid to unleash that anger. The one thing that makes Virginia happy is that she actually likes to clean, so, unbeknownst to Lane, she takes up Mathilde’s chores and, in the process, finds the sister in Mathilde that she failed to find in Lane.
These are the characters in Sarah Ruhl’s “The Clean House,” a new play which we are told was a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize. Ms. Ruhl, make no mistake about it, has style and what theatre people like to refer to as “a voice,” and there are, to be sure, some dark shadows lurking behind that whimsical façade, but it does seem as if she has rediscovered and reinvented the literary subtleties of Dick and Jane. And she is not helped by the production, under the direction of Bill Rauch, which is as sterile, as antiseptic, as airless as both the play itself and the white set by Christopher Acero on which it takes place. And when the play takes a messy turn, as we know it will, and as it must, that is not a real mess on the stage, but a mess that is every bit as artificial as what leads up to the mess. Rauch has got himself a terrific cast, but they are under such emotional constraint that they barely exist; they seem to float on whatever bit of ether they have been allowed to breathe in.
There is one exception.  Jill Clayburgh, as Virginia, who, from her very first entrance, displays the kind of behavioral tics that tell us there is a real person, hurt and befuddled, hiding behind the mannered and superficial representation of a person that has been written; Ms. Clayburgh manages to be simultaneously funny and poignant and, in her wonderfully quirky yet human portrayal, gives the play a depth that should prove educational to the playwright and the director.
It should also be pointed out that the play does begin on a high note when Vanessa Aspillaga, as the hapless Mathilde, tells an elaborate joke in Portuguese; she is so hilariously funny that we assume that this is a flash forward to the perfect joke the character claims, during the course of the play, to have finally found, since no other joke she tells is nearly as funny. But, then again, how many times can we laugh at a joke we don’t really understand?
Theatre Review by Harvey Perr
BALLAD OF THE SWEET OLD MEN
Gate Theatre Dublin
Waiting For Godot
opened October 24, 2006
at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
closes October 28
How dare one, even a little, harp at the Gate Theatre Dublin production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot?”
This is as clear, as simple, as uncluttered a presentation of the play as you could imagine. The rhythms and cadences are unmistakably Gaelic, a reminder that its author was, after all, an Irishman. There is pure joy to be found in the way this Estragon and Vladimir, or, rather, Gogo and Didi (as they are wont to refer to each other), sweetly hold on to each other, even playing familiar games with each other, particularly in the eloquent manner in which they are embodied by Johnny Murphy and Barry McGovern, as they await their long day’s journey into the eternal night they hope will come to them and finally take them to a safer place.
This is a valid interpretation, this ballad of two sweet old men, this melancholy and rueful  dance of death, this vaudeville act of two friends who know their old routines only too well. This Gogo is testy but compliant; this Didi is wistful and patient. They do no damage to the play as it so comfortably exists under Walter D. Asmus’ tender and straightforward direction. And, even when those intruders, the tyrannical Pozzo and his aphasic slave Lucky, beautifully physicalized by Alan Stanford and Stephen Brennan, come in, they do so without much ado and provide, for Gogo and Didi, and for us, a welcome divertissement, a momentary distraction. After all, we all may be dying, but we still go to the theater, don’t we?
And still, under the circumstances, given the lucidity in command here, do we have the right to ask for the more subversive elements that also exist in this play, the gallows humor that walks hand in hand with the vaudeville shtick, the depths of despair that cling to these men like the muck they are mired in, the knowledge that tragedy stalks us from the moment we are born?  If Samuel Beckett could know all that, and if he could write about it with such a painful sense of the absurd, then, yes, we have a right to ask for it.


 
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