The Clean House is the first play by the prolific 32-year-old playwright Sarah Ruhl to reach New York. The Clean House has had stagings outside of the metropolitan area and was seen at Yale Rep in 2004 in a production, which was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize. Ms. Ruhl's plays have been getting productions here and abroad ever since she graduated with an M.F.A. from Brown University where she was mentored by playwright Paula Vogel. Just days before The Clean House opened at Lincoln Center she received the coveted MacArthur "Genius" Award, which only heightened expectations about the play. The Clean House was a disappointment to me: I felt it was a seminal work of a promising talent. I was surprised that after a couple of years of regional productions that the play hadn't been worked on more and still needed to be severely honed and clarified.
The basic premise does possess a potential wacky sense of originality, centering around a depressed Brazilian maid who doesn't want to clean house for her employers - a husband and wife - both well-to-do physicians. She would rather spend her time searching for the perfect joke, which made her mother die laughing. Serendipitously the physician wife's loopy sister unexpectedly arrives, a compulsive cleaner who "lives for dust" and takes up the maid's slack. The household - all done up in immaculate bisque white décor by Christopher Acebo - is set further askew by the physician husband's startling revelation that he has fallen in love with a 67-year-old terminally ill patient and will be soon setting off to Alaska to find a tree that will cure her illness. If all this sounds a bit farfetched and fanciful, well, it is. Creating idiosyncratic characters, amusing and annoying situations seems to be Ms. Ruhl's forte. Yet you get the sense that she is attempting something deeper, here which never gets quite realized. When she received the MacArthur Award her writing was described as "an adventurous theatrical voice that poignantly juxtaposes the mundane aspects of daily life with the mythic themes of love and war."
Is The Clean House a modern reinterpretation of Homer's Odyssey legend with the husband and wife, Ulysses and Penelope and the sick patient Helen? When baskets of apples arrived in Act II I was wondering if my predilections were being confirmed. At other times the play smacked of a definite foreign flavor, a romantic boulevard comedy that had been translated (albeit bumptiously) into English. The play's more whimsical scenes, of which there are too many, brought to mind an early Craig Lucas play Reckless.
In the end, after spending two hours with her characters you are left wondering what Ms. Ruhl's play is really trying to say. Is it a feminist tract saying that only after men leave for war or the wilds of Alaska, this could also fit in with my Odyssey comparison - can women join forces and become not adversaries, but friends and caregivers? Or is it just a post-modern romantic comedy?
The Lincoln Center production didn't elucidate any of this and I blame it mainly on the director Bill Rauch, who ironically directed the heralded Yale Rep productions. Here he staged the play in a pedestrian, matter-of-fact manner that didn't allow the play to breathe or give the proceedings anything more than surface depth. The actors were all proven and first rate - Vanessa Aspillaga, as the maid; Blair Brown and John Dossett as the doctor couple; Concetta Tomei, as the ill woman, and Jill Clayburgh as the sister-in-law - but with the exception of Ms. Clayburgh they all seemed slightly adrift. Ms. Clayburgh, who after a few decades in film and T.V. has returned to the New York stage with a vengeance - four plays in a year - seemed the most at home and anchored as the daffy cleaning-obsessed sister-in-law.