By Vicki Paris Goodman
Some might feel cheated that the opening joke in The Clean House is uttered in Portuguese. Those same folks might scowl again when the closing joke is merely whispered inaudibly into a character’s ear. But letting the audience miss the joke may be the right call by director caryn desai (sic).
Playwright Sarah Ruhl’s play pushes the boundaries in ways that few plays do. And the jokes are at once the point and beside the point. But is there a point to Ruhl’s somewhat superficial play?
In The Clean House, uptight accomplished physician Lane (Caryn West) is married to the suddenly philandering physician Charles (Rob Roy Cesar). Their marriage has been one of passionless mutual admiration. Their house is a monument to anti-clutter and sterility. Charles has fallen for one of his breast cancer patients, the vibrant and stunning Ana (Nadia Nardini). Ana is everything that Lane is not.
Brazilian Matilde (Eileen Galindo), whose now-deceased parents fell in love over their mutual pursuit of the perfect joke, is committed to carrying on the family tradition. She has also been hired by Lane to be her cleaning lady. The only problem is Matilde hates cleaning houses.
Enter Lane’s obsessive-compulsive sister Virginia (Kathy Bell Denton), whose entire life revolves around cleaning her own house. To Virginia’s chagrin, the task takes up only part of each day. So when she and Matilde get to talking, the result is a mutually beneficial pact in which clean freak Virginia secretly cleans her sister’s house, freeing up Matilde to continue her quest for the perfect joke.
As played by Galindo, the dry-humored, honest, and wholly likable Matilde carries the show. Not to make light of the portrayals by other cast members, but Ruhl’s play fails to develop any of them beyond the point of mere caricature. To this extent Ruhl abandons her responsibilities as playwright, avoiding the painstaking work of cultivating her characters and growing their relationships.
Indeed, when Matilde and Virginia begin to get to know each other, an opportunity exists for a real friendship to ensue. But Ruhl never goes in that direction or any other, for that matter. Instead she focuses on stereotypes and allegorical shadows, choosing to let her play constitute little more than a cartoon.
Cesar’s Charles epitomizes this shallowness, yielding a shell of a man whom someone like Ana could never believably care for.
Speaking of unbelievablility, Matilde’s reminiscences from childhood feature fondly remembered parents whose treatment of their daughter as a mere afterthought doesn’t wash either.
Even so, desai’s (sic) production is stylish and well executed. Designer Stephen Gifford’s immaculate and chaos-averse set is strikingly appealing, even zen-like, in its monochromatic simplicity and line. Kim DeShazo’s costumes go a long way toward helping to define the characters. If only Ruhl had done her part to develop them.
With all this in mind, audiences are called upon to suspend belief and accept The Clean House on its own quirky but admittedly rather engaging terms, where every scenario is a comic strip and every scene a fast-forward. As such, it’s a tall order which some audience members might find too tall.
The Clean House continues at International City Theatre through Sept. 19. Tickets are $37 to $42 for Friday and Saturday evening performances and for Sunday matinees; tickets are $32 to $37 for Thursday evening performances. Evening performances are at 8pm; Sunday matinees are at 2pm. ICT is located in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center at 300 East Ocean Blvd. Call (562) 436-4610 for reservations and information. Tickets are also available online at InternationalCityTheatre.org.