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
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 faÃƒƒ§ade, 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?