How’s this for a cast of characters? Lane, a doctor (and doctor’s wife) who wants nothing more than to live in a clean house.  Matilde, Lane’s Brazilian cleaning lady, who loves jokes almost as much as life itself but doesn’t like cleaning house—not one bit.  Lane’s sister Virginia, who loves to clean house so much that simply cleaning her own is not enough for her. Lane’s surgeon husband Charles, who wants to leave Lane for Ana.  Ana, Charles’ Argentinean patient and paramour, who has breast cancer. Characters who meet and interact in what playwright Sarah Ruhl describes as “a metaphysical Connecticut,” in “a house that is not far from the city and not far from the sea.”

Probably only Ruhl, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-nominated author of Eurydice and Dead Man’s Cell Phone, could prove herself capable of taking such charmingly odd characters and coming up with the quirky, whimsical, and ultimately quite moving soufflé that is The Clean House.   

Now playing at Long Beach’s International City Theatre, Ruhl’s 2004 gem shines brightly in a production which enchanted this reviewer from its hilarious opening monolog (a joke told entirely in Portuguese without translation) to its transcendent finale. 

The world Ruhl creates in The Clean House is one where apples thrown from a balcony in one part of town fall into a living room in another part of the city because they occupy adjacent spaces on a theater stage, and where the people in one character’s fantasy are visible to another character because the actors playing them are on stage next to her.  Rhul’s is a world in which jokes are funny even when we can’t understand a word being spoken and where people can quite literally die laughing.  It is a magical place that casts its unique spell from that very first joke em português.

Some of the events which take place in The Clean House are small.  (Virginia makes a deal with Matilde to clean Lane’s house in Matilde’s stead.) Others are monumental.  (Ana develops a life-threatening illness.)  Some characters behave in ways any one of us can understand. (Lane feels suicidal when Charles informs her he’s moving out.)  Others have their own peculiar logic. (Charles truly expects Lane to be overjoyed that he’s found his beshert—Yiddish for “soul mate”—even though neither of them is Jewish.)

When Virginia asks Matilde her age and Matilde replies by saying “Young enough that my skin is still good. Old enough that I’m starting to think: is my skin still good?”, we laugh because it’s a clever punch line to Virginia’s question.  When Virginia then responds with a deadpan, “Yes.  You’re twenty-seven,” we laugh even louder because in Sarah Ruhl’s world, this is how people think and talk.  They also say things like “I love cleaning the toilet.  It’s so dirty, and then it’s so clean!” and when confronted with the possibility that a nurse might have accidentally left her panties at her lover’s home before returning to work, declare in horror, “No underwear in a hospital?  It’s unsanitary.”

A Sarah Ruhl play requires just the right touch to make it work. Too heavy and the comic soufflé will fall. Too light and the audience won’t take these people seriously.

Fortunately director caryn desai and her accomplished quintet of actors know exactly how to play by the Ruhls—and the result is a production that blends reality and whimsy in almost equal measure.

A terrific Caryn West gives Lane just the right blend of the acerbic and the no-nonsense to make lines like “I did not go to medical school to clean my own kitchen” sound as funny as all get-out Kathy Bell Denton is deliciously, dryly droll as Virginia, who lives her life with the certainty that “if I were to die at any moment during the day, no one would have to clean my kitchen.” In smaller roles, Nadia Nardini gives Ana a South American alegria de vivir which prevents the cancer victim from ever becoming maudlin and Rob Roy Cesar fits Virginia’s definition of Charles (“handsome” and “charismatic”) to a T. Finally, there’s the stellar work done by Eileen Galindo as Matilde, a scene-stealer par excellence whether commenting on life with precisely the “refined sense of deadpan” Ruhl refers to in her description of the character or bubbling over with excitement and glee while telling jokes that do not need to be understood to provoke laughter.

Nobody knows better how to design for the ICT stage than scenic artist Stephen Gifford, who has created an all-white living room and adjoining balcony that are absolutely gorgeous.  Chris Kittrell’s superb lighting design casts striking shadows and light on Gifford’s set, and his sound design does much to enhance the play’s moods.  Kim DeShazo’s costume designs match each character perfectly, as do Anthony Gagliardi’s hair/wigs.  Pat Loeb is production stage manager.

The Clean House serves once again to establish Long Beach’s International City Theater as one of Metropolitan L.A.’s finest mid-sized houses, and one well worth discovering by patrons of the Taper and the Geffen in search of quality professional theater within easy driving distance. The Clean House is ICT at its best.

International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
August 27, 2010 
                                                                         Photos: Shashin Desai

Comments are closed.