by Charles Brousse
While I’m no lover of punning, it’s hard to resist the temptation to “come clean” about my reaction to The Clean House, Sarah Ruhl’s comic drama (or dramatic comedy—whichever you prefer) that just began its run at the Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theatre.
In previous reviews, I’ve voiced concern about the increasing tendency among contemporary playwrights to replace the traditional “unities” of time, place and character development that have shaped Western theater from classical Greece to the present with a kind of anarchic/anything goes approach that stresses form over content, sensory impact over psychological depth, innovation over consistency.
Sadly, the experience turned out to be a textbook example of what I’ve just described. This is not to denigrate the quality of RVP’s cast, which is solid throughout.
The Clean House is barely seconds old when Ruhl tips her hand. Wall projections of huge abstract paintings and a sparse, all-white décor conform with what the program describes as an upscale suburban Connecticut home inhabited by a childless married pair of affluent medical doctors. Their maid, Matilde (a vibrant Livia Demarchi), interrupts her desultory dusting, moves to the front of the stage to address the audience with a lengthy song in Portuguese, expressing her dislike of housework and the sexual favors (suggested by repeated pelvic thrusts) requested by previous employers.
Matilde’s song—together with her confession that she’d rather continue her fun-loving father’s search for the “perfect joke” than clean houses—and the stern rebuke that this elicits from Lane, her employer’s wife. Enter Virginia (the perfectly cast Tamar Cohn), Lane’s older sister, whose obsession with cleaning is an escape from an empty life. Without Lane’s knowledge, she becomes Matilde’s everyday assistant and the mood shifts. It’s still wacky, but now it’s about housewives’ depression.
And then—Voila! It becomes a romantic farce.
As enticing as this setup seems, Ruhl has other ideas. It’s time for tragedy. Charles’ paramour Anna (a super exuberant Sumi Narendran) has breast cancer. Although no longer funny, the wackiness continues as the survivors cheerfully embrace the ensuing confusion and bury their differences.
So, what is the playwright trying to tell us? Chaos is dangerous but good for the spirit, order is safe but bad? Frankly, I’m not really sure, but I’d certainly like to check out the dust level in her house.
Charles Brousse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NOW PLAYING: The Clean House runs through June 14 at the Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theatre, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross. For more information, call 415/456-9555, or visit rossvalleyplayers.com.