After what was by many accounts a long string of disappointing performances, the Yale Repertory Theater’s new season opens with a comedy that is unfailingly funny and unexpectedly poignant. “The Clean House,” which enjoyed its world premier this week at the University Theatre, is a touching meditation on loneliness, love and (excuse the saccharine phrasing) the power of laughter.
Playwright Laura Ruhl, who is 30 years old, writes with the astute eye of a woman who’s seen it all, or at least a few marriages. It is difficult to fathom how the play’s intricate portrayal of adult relationships — and the repression, anger and love that are buried within them — came from the mind of such a young artist. Nearly every aspect of the play is buoyed by the constant energy of Ms. Ruhl’s script, recent winner of the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.
The play’s first act focuses on three women: Lane (a doctor), Virginia (her sister), and Matilde, Lane’s newly-hired maid from Brazil. The play begins with a slightly awkward, though effective, prologue, in which the characters introduce themselves in monologues sprinkled with one-liners. Matilde, played zealously by Zilah Mendoza, treats the audience as a confidant, and quickly emerges as the play’s protagonist, a role that becomes less important as “House” progresses.
After the speeches, a curtain lifts to reveal the gorgeous set: Lane’s meticulously arranged living room, decorated with frighteningly sterile art-deco furniture. The stage is bathed in a blanket of white, against which Matilde, wearing all black — not to mention a green house plant (and later baskets of red apples) — stands out in violent beauty.
In heavily-accented English, Matilde explains that her mother died laughing of a joke her dad took a year to write, and so he took his own life too. This magic realism, straight out of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, allows the play to embrace its later tragedies with a light heart. Matilde’s all-black outfit can be seen as a symbol of the play’s undercurrent of death, which runs quietly beneath its comedic surface.
Matilde dislikes cleaning: instead of re-shining Lane’s metallic lampshade and vacuuming already clean carpets, she spends her days thinking of the perfect joke. Luckily for her, her boss’ sister Virginia is an aging, lonely housewife (what housewives aren’t?) with free time and a neurotic obsession with cleanliness. Her maxim, “If you don’t clean, how do you know if you’ve made any progress in life?” is the play’s tagline.
The rapport between Matilde and Virginia — especially compared to the cliched stiltedness of Lane’s relationships with the other characters — is one of the most tender aspects of the play, not to mention one of the most funny. When Virginia tells Matilde that she has no children, the young immigrant apologizes for having asked: “Don’t be sorry,” the older woman answers. “My husband is barren.”
Act I of “The Clean House” is short and sweet, as the person next to me said, but intensely rich. During intermission, women in the ladies’ room were talking about their own Spanish-speaking cleaning ladies — proof that the play’s supposed setting of “a metaphysical Connecticut” is more realistic than Ms. Ruhl might have imagined.
When the curtain rises on Act II, it is on a very different set. The stage is empty except for a surgeon and his patient, lying on a table. They too are dressed all in white, though drenched in a red light that softens as the surgery beings. In what I can only think to describe as a beautiful dance, the doctor falls into perfect love with his patient as he blissfully stitches her up. The scene has the warm grace of the ballets in Almod–var’s “Talk to Her.” Like two other similar moments in the play, the dance lifts “The Clean House” to a transcendence that might only be reached in the theater.
The integration of the surgeon and his lover into the plot of the play provides a twist that leads Act II, and the audience, in a unique direction. The play’s sense of humor, which was balanced delicately somewhere in between Jerry Seinfeld’s and Samuel Beckett’s, quickly takes a back seat to its dramatic intent.
The freefall from impeccable order to chaos that ensues mocks the precision with which Lane’s living room was kept so clean in Act I. But the pain thinly veiled by the room’s tidiness would be unbearable if it didn’t manifest itself at all, and it is how and when those manifestations occur that make “The Clean House” such an interesting comedy.
It doesn’t hurt that it is so damn funny, either.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”1059″ ]