Spit and Polish

The first act of Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House is about as perfect a piece of theater as I can imagine. On a stunningly evocative, elegantly gray-and-white set, with cool, beautiful lines and an abstract but vaguely human-looking sculpture lurking in the background, Matilde cleans house for a pair of doctors -- Lane and her surgeon husband, Charles. Matilde hates to clean. She wants to figure out the world's funniest joke. She tells us that her mother died laughing at a joke told by her father, after which her father shot himself. So we're introduced early on to the play's basic theme: the way comedy and tragedy intertwine in human events, the possibility of humor as a universally purifying force. Shakespeare promoted much the same idea when he had Jaques in As You Like It ask for a fool's costume so that he could "cleanse the foul body of the infected world" through laughter.

Lane believes in household order, hierarchy and status. "I don't want an interesting person cleaning my house," she tells Matilde. But Lane's sister, Virginia, who loves cleaning as much as Matilde loathes it, has a more democratic outlook. For her, mopping, sweeping and chasing dust bunnies are a way of keeping life's ugliness and fear at bay. Secretly, she offers to do Matilde's job for her. The first act concludes soon after Lane's discovery that Charles has fallen in love with a 67-year-old woman on whom he's performed a mastectomy.

So far, so good. So very good indeed. It takes real intellectual daring for a writer to begin a play with a long joke told entirely in Portuguese. The dialogue is light, funny, touching and often profound, with just a hint of social consciousness, but not enough to be didactic. Periodically, an announcement about the action flashes on the back wall to great comic effect -- heralding a moment of primal sibling rage between Virginia and Lane, for example. The act flies by; comments like "I love this" flutter in the air as the Denver Center audience files out for intermission.

But the second act gets soggy. Charles's extramarital beloved is Ana, an Argentine woman whom we're supposed to see as representing some kind of cosmic life force. Ana bonds immediately with Matilde and attempts to placate a hurt and furious Lane. Charles babbles about the Yiddish tradition of bashert, which has to do with the notion that we all have a soul partner assigned to us before birth. There's loads of symbolism: apples; a yellow powder with which Charles fills the space left by Ana's breast and which represents both his soul and all things good and life-affirming; a romantic mission undertaken by Charles to retrieve a yew tree and cure Ana's cancer (it seems churlish to point out that Taxol -- a drug synthesized from yew-tree bark -- was in the news almost two decades ago and hardly turned out to be a miracle cure); and finally, Lane's kneeling beside Ana's body and preparing to wash it. Oh, penitence! Even the sharing of a bowl of chocolate ice cream becomes an act of communion. The play still boasts moments of sharp humor, like Lane's response when Charles tells her that he and Ana are going apple-picking: "This is not a foreign film!" But for the most part, the characters' quirks and particularities are subsumed to the playwright's damp-eyed vision. Matilde is no longer lonely and quick-witted, Virginia loses the edge of hysteria we loved in her, and Lane becomes kind and forgiving. And through all this sweetness and bonding, it's impossible to figure out just what's so special about Ana -- either in what she does and says or in Judith Delgado's perfectly reasonable but hardly radiant performance.

Perhaps it is possible in some sense to transcend death; perhaps humor is indeed the key. But before you transcend it, you have face it full-on. The Clean House never evokes the real horror and ugliness of dying, just dances around the process waving gossamer strands of whimsy.

Jamie Horton does his usual sterling work as Charles, but the role doesn't ask much of him. Romi Dias, who plays Matilde, has a strong, clean delivery. But this production's soul comes neither from joke-loving Dias nor from Delgado's Ana. It's provided by Charlotte Booker's Virginia, whose attempt to create an "operatic mess" is one of the high points of the evening: She valiantly attempts destruction but can't overcome her compulsive cleanliness, and as she overturns furniture and attempts to mess up magazines, you can actually see her body fighting with itself. And the mesmerizing Caitlin O'Connell offers a wonderful contrast between the achievement-oriented persona she projects as Lane and the far wilder, woolier being we sense beneath. At one point, she's called on to laugh until the laughter turns to tears. It's a common dramatic device, and it encapsulates the playwright's theme, but O'Connell's approach is so magnificently idiosyncratic that it makes the moment entirely original. The extraordinary set comes courtesy of Alexander Dodge.

I don't want to disparage Ruhl's play entirely; the script reveals a smart, quirky, theatrical sensibility, and this production is enjoyable overall. But it's sad to feel the dizzy rhythms of the beginning becoming predictable as the evening slows from a dance to a trudge.