The Clean House is empty of real thought

The Denver Center Theatre Company produced Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House three years ago, and though there were elements of the play I liked a lot, overall it didn't work. There was something unfocused, arch and fey about the dialogue, and by the end the whole thing had dissolved into a sputter of sentimentality. But this turned out to be one of those theater evenings that expands in the imagination. I kept remembering the intellectual daring of the beginning, in which a Brazilian maid tells a long — and untranslated — joke in Portugese; the scene in which a woman who lives to clean (so that she doesn't have to think) crazily trashes a living room, her body almost fighting with itself as she does so; a man staggering on stage hauling a huge yew tree with which he proposes to heal his cancer-stricken beloved. Perhaps I'd misjudged, I thought, been too cynical. And then I saw Ruhl's Eurydice at Curious, a witty and profound fantasy that blew me away. So I was anxious to see what the estimable Boulder Ensemble would do with The Clean House, and quite ready to recant my earlier opinion of the script. Except it turned out that I couldn't. If anything, the play seemed emptier to me this time — and not because of any failure of the company's.

Once that first joke is over, we learn that the maid is Matilde. She hates to clean, she loves humor, and her goal in life is to invent the perfect joke. Her mother, she tells us, died laughing at one of her father's jokes, and he shot himself shortly thereafter. So she's a little afraid that succeeding in her mission will kill her. Her employer is a hyper-organized doctor, Lane, who's not at all amused by Matilde's aversion to cleaning. Fortunately, Lane's sister, Virginia, loves housekeeping, and offers to take on the work in secret. As she and Matilde sort laundry, they discover sexy panties in among the underwear, and pretty soon we learn that Lane's husband, Charles, also a doctor, is in love with one of his patients: a cancer-stricken 67-year-old named Ana. Obviously, things have been pretty surreal so far — rather enchantingly so — but from here on even any slim pretense at plot and character disappears and pure symbolism takes over. And the symbolism's not that evocative. There's the tree, of course. Also yellow powder, red and yellow apples, the sea and a lot of babble about the Jewish tradition of bashert, which has to do with finding one's soulmate and which Charles uses to justify his betrayal of Lane. You can make interesting connections here, think about the deeper meaning of human laughter and its cleansing potential, contemplate language and just what it can and can't communicate. Touch on class. But if anything profound pops up, it's you who created it — because Ruhl, rather than exploring her images, concretizing them, making them integral, is just whimsically tossing them in our direction and telling us to make of them what we will.

Bob Buckley could be an effective Charles, except that he plays the role fast, without subtlety and at the top of his voice. The rest of the acting is solid. Suzanne Morales is a pleasant Ana, though she lacks the glow that everyone else in the story attributes to her. Jamie Ann Romero is an enchanting Matilde, and Anna Sandoe does very well as Lane, particularly in the scene where she's required to laugh and cry and laugh again. Sheri Davis's Virginia is warm and amazingly sympathetic. I did wonder if The Clean House might have worked better if director Rebecca Remaly had asked her cast to look for deeper, grimmer, crazier and more contrasting elements in their characters, and if this might have mitigated the sentimentality of the script. Maybe the third time I see this play, that will be the charm.


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