The imported custodian in Syracuse Stage’s The Clean House gets all the laughs
Hot young playwright Sarah Ruhl, born in 1974, got the idea for her Pulitzer Prize-shortlisted The Clean House while attending a party for doctors. One physician groused that her Brazilian-born employee was too depressed to continue with the job, and so the irksome task had fallen back to her. “I didn’t go to medical school to clean my own house,” she growled. The line is still there, word for word, in the first act of Syracuse Stage’s season finale, earning a huge laugh as well as a chilling frisson of recognition about rich and poor, domesticity and feminism nearly 50 years after Betty Friedan. These are all weighty themes, invitations to preaching. Not to worry. Playwright Ruhl does not go to any of those places. Everything she has to say is unpredictable and, most of the time, hilarious.
A jaded usher, having seen the show more than once, advised your reviewer on the way out that The Clean House was really two oneact plays with only a tenuous connection to one another. Such a misapprehension is entirely understandable because so much of the first act feels like a sitcom, with three players.
First is the high-powered, hard-working Doctor Lane (Carol Halstead), who utters the aforementioned “I didn’t go to medical school” line and finds herself in conflict with her more domestic sister Virginia (Linda Marie Larson). The sibling boasts, “I clean my own house every day by 3:12,” and, “If I were to die, at any moment during the day, no one would have to clean up my kitchen.” And there is the Brazilian cleaning lady, Matilde (Gisela Chípe), who may have been forced into this trade by economic necessity, but finds that it depresses her and so falls down on the job. She’d rather tell jokes. Her name is pronounced “ma-chill-gee,” an obstacle for certain Yankees.
For most of the second act we learn about the affair that Lane’s husband Charles (David Adkins) is having with a 67-year-old patient, Ana (Alma Cuervo), on whose cancerous breast he had operated, unsuccessfully, and the tumor is spreading. Lightening the impact of the surgery, we see Charles and Ana in silhouette, lip-synching a duet from Rigoletto. Astoundingly, Charles has convinced Lane that Ana is his true “soul mate” (the adulterers’ favorite cliché) and that under some unnamed Jewish law (none of the characters is Jewish), Lane is no longer his wife. And he’d like her to take in the stricken Ana and tend to her comfort as the end approaches. She does.
Ruhl’s The Clean House is a ride. A summary of its anfractuous plot, with its abrupt switches of tone and mood, more complicated than we have let on, won’t tell you what the play is really “about.” It constantly teases and puzzles. At rise of curtain we see Matilde, dressed all in black in Lane’s white-on white interior, telling a lengthy, naughty-appearing (with pelvic thrusts) joke in Portuguese, but it is never translated. Instead she expounds on the aesthetics of comedy: “In order to tell a good joke, you have to think your problems are very small, and the world is very big.” She relates, further, that her parents were among the greatest jokesters in all Brazil and that her mother literally died laughing, at a joke told by her father.
In seeking more humor, more material for Matilde’s jokes, Ruhl follows many routes. Around the mock sitcom elements of the first act, Ruhl has wrapped a cordon of absurdism, not unlike what one would find in the youthful Edward Albee or John Guare. Dismissing Lane and Virginia’s obsessions, Matilde advises, “If the floor is dirty, look at the ceiling.” Calling for bravura jolting shifts of tone, Lane alternates deep sobbing with uncontrolled laughter as she ambivilates between her incredulity at Charles’ outrageous request that she take charge of his mistress and her horror that she’s actually going to comply, not incidentally one of actress Carol Halstead’s finest moments.
Taking a note from Maltide’s roots, Ruhl also introduces some South American magical realism, only to subvert it. Lane’s storytelling of Charles and Ana’s encounter is so vivid the actors appear on stage, projected from her imagination, before our very eyes. But when the more earthbound Matilde enters the scene, she breaks through the convention and asks who these people are. Lane responds that they only live in her imagination. When Ana and Matilde go apple-picking, conventionally thought to be elsewhere, the women can be seen on a balcony in a simultaneous set. When they reject some of the apples as unfit, they toss them over the side, in effect raining down on the hapless head of Lane, trying to recline on her couch.
Cured of her workaholic obsessiveness (“I go to work exhausted, and I come home exhausted!”), Lane declares her liberation by deliberately messing up her perfect living room and overturning the dirt in a flowerpot to the resounding chords of a Richard Strauss fanfare.
“Laughter,” Tom Stoppard usefully explained recently, “is the sound of comprehension.” We have no evidence that he ever consulted with Ruhl before making this pronouncement, but he points the way to resolving the play’s many seeming contradictions. Matilde’s quest for the perfect joke is not an analogue for creativity or for art but for blinding insight. Jokes, notoriously, cannot be explained, and neither can the rationale behind them. Matilde spoofs facile analysis by repeating the bromide, “All in the timing,” at precisely the wrong time. After Ana’s surprisingly poignant death scene, Matilde seeks to dispel the chill with her usual solution: yet another joke. But it’s in Portuguese and we cannot get it.
First-time director Michael Barakiva is New York City-based with credits from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Tim Bond’s old stomping grounds. He makes sure the subtle but sometime biting humor in The Clean House never veers into whimsy.
Press reports that lovely Gisela Chípe, a native of Brazil, was sure she was perfect for the role Matilde, appear to be justified. The character is self-assured without being flippant. She knows she sounds crazy, but we know she isn’t.
The division of labor between the sisters is not accurately reflected in the summary here, as Linda Marie Larson’s Virginia gets as many laugh lines as anyone in the cast, while Carol Halstead’s Lane, initially unsympathetic, travels the longest arc. David Adkins’ Brazilian father in the first act looks decidedly different from the guileless adulterer Charles in the second. And Alma Cuervo as Ana must break though this off-the-wall comedy to present a death scene that turns emotions 180 degrees.
More than any production this season, what we see in The Clean House is as important as what we hear. John Iacovelli’s blindingly white set for a house “not far from the sea and not far from the city” tells us what we need to know about Lane’s emotional world, as does her white costume and light beige shoes from Oana Botez-Ban. Before Matilde opens her mouth her black dress isolates her more than her language and social class do. When Matilde and Virginia go through Lane’s whiteon-white laundry, the discovery of brilliant red panties assure of Charles’ adultery before we hear a word.
The Clean House embraces forgiveness, death and love, but always remains accessible and wears its emotions on its sleeve.
This production runs through May 22. See Times Table for information.
Class acts: Carol Halstead and Gisela Chipe in Syracuse Stage’s The Clean House.