Saturday, March 10, 2007

THE CLEAN HOUSE (Cleveland Public Theatre)


‘THE CLEAN HOUSE,’ Sarah Ruhl’s award winning play, which is now in production at the Cleveland Play House, is the kind of show audiences will either love or hate. The overheard comments by exiting patrons at the conclusion ranged all over the place regarding their thoughts of the production.

The play was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize and won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for best play written in English by a female playwright in 2004. Yet, reviews of the show’s productions in New York and elsewhere were very mixed. It was added to and taken off several theatre’s production schedules due to questions over audience appeal.

Ruhl indicates that the germ for the play came from real life. According to the author, the opening monologue, “I didn’t go to medical school to clean my own house,” came from a comment she overheard at a cocktail party. Ruhl took this statement and rolled out a play which explores relationships and our need for purpose, while examining the Great American class divide. Isn’t it interesting that the upper and middle classes who want clean homes, hire the lower middle and lower classes to do the work!

One of the most fascinating aspects of the play is that the author look at the rituals of cleaning and death as parallel processes. According to Ruhl, “the byproducts of life are waste and chaos, every time we clean we try to keep chaos at bay.” She parallels that to the role of the doctor, the occupation of her lead character, who spends her days helping her patients fight the byproducts of their diseases, but won’t apply the same principles to her life and her home.

Don’t get the idea that ‘THE CLEAN HOUSE’ is a tragedy. It has very serious undertones, but it is also about jokes and ice cream and apples. In fact, the most important writing element of the script is the attempt to create the perfect joke. Our heroine finally conceives it, but, like life itself, we never quite hear it, we never really “get” it.

With that philosophical exposition, what’s the play about? Lane, a successful and exacting American doctor, believes her home should be spotless but wants nothing to do with the cleaning of it. Mathilde, the Brazilian maid hired to clean Lane’s house, is completely uninterested in housecleaning – her parents were the funniest people in their village and she is obsessively focused on her search for the perfect joke. Virginia, Lane’s sister, has a cleaning fetish and believes it immoral not to clean one’s home. Lane’s surgeon husband has fallen deeply in love with one of his patients, a dying woman who has a unique view of life and death. All this combines to make for a potentially thought-provoking experience.

The Cleveland Play House production has an excellent cast, is well paced by director Davis McCallum and has a startling attractive set by Andromache Chalfant. The use of projections to interpret the Portugese spoken lines is creative.

Ursula Cataan, who has a Salma Hayek personality and resemblance, is delightful as Matilda. Patricia Hodges is properly uptight as Lane. Beth Dixon gives a practical base to Virginia, Lane’s sister. Janis Dardaris shines as the dying Ana. Only Terry Layman disappoints as Lane’s husband. He never seems real. Part of this may be due to the unrealistic lines he is given by the playwright and the equally non-believable situation of trekking in Alaska with the goal of finding a tree which supposedly will cure Ana’s cancer. (Would a doctor do that?)

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Seldom do I leave a theatre with a feeling of ambivalence. This was not the case with ‘THE CLEAN HOUSE.’ I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it, I can’t recommend not seeing it, but I can’t say, “go.” I guess I’ll just have to go clean my house and delve into the psychology of the activity.