"The Clean House"
Yale Repertory Theatre at the University Theatre, New Haven
Humor is a very subjective, very personal, business. One man's guffaw is another man's ho-hum. Thus it was that this reviewer sat mutely through the first act of "The Clean House," while other viewers roared with laughter. What's so funny? Certainly not the dialogue that was offered in that interminable first act.
Sarah Ruhl's play (apparently an award-winner) is about Brazilian maids, sibling rivalry, life, death, adultery, and the pursuit of the perfect joke. Granted that Ruhl has a certain quirky style which offers up unexpected lines. This will prove a saving grace later in the play. But the opening act deals with the maid who doesn't like to clean, her employer (a woman doctor who finds it awkward to give orders), and the doctor's sister, a compulsive housewife. The maid dreams of that perfect joke, and recalls her dead parents, once the two funniest people in Brazil. These offerings falls short of hilarity, and, like the protagonists of "Waiting for Godot," one waits forever for the punch line which never comes.
But Act II provides a turn-around. In a very funny opening scene, the doctor's husband (also a doctor) arrives with his mistress--his soul-mate, as he explains. (In fact, he calls upon the Jewish tradition, with its concept of the "bashert"-or soulmate. Though he is not Jewish, he has heard about it in a radio program.) He has just operated on her for breast cancer, and they fall in love during the operation. Throughout this scene, the wife plays straight man to the other over-the-top characters. If only the play had begun with this scene!
But then the play moves into another genre, suddenly becoming serious, as the mistress proves to have terminal cancer. And ultimately a moving scene is depicted, as the characters rally around the dying woman.
Ruhl's style, in fact, has an annoying way of jumping from genre to genre. Is this magic realism, as in the tradition of Latino literature? Is it theater of the absurd? Is it a farce? Is it the human comedy? Is it touching tragedy? Or is it whatever the playwright chooses at the moment? These inconsistencies give the play a scattershot quality and make it difficult to empathize with the characters.
The production itself is another matter-in fact, first-rate, under Bill Rauch's astute direction. Christopher Acebo' sets are dazzling (from the pristine living room to the balcony looking out over the sea), abetted by Geoff Korf's lighting, and Andre Pluess' sound design and music. And best of all are the performances from a fine cast (doing better than could be expected, considering the material). Laurie Kennedy is both funny and moving as the downtrodden sister, and Franca M. Barchiesi (who replaced Carmen De Lavallade at the eleventh hour) gives a radiant performance as the dying mistress. And Tom Bloom, Elizabeth Norment and Zilah Mendoza all acquit themselves admirably in their assigned parts.
All told, it must be acknowledged that Ruhl is a new unique voice in the theater. But that voice does not come across with precision or coherence in this particular piece (awards notwithstanding).
-- Irene Backalenick
Sept. 23, 2004