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Domestic Drama

Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House feels like it’s been thoroughly scrubbed of human ambiguity. And the jokes would really work better in English.

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Illustration by Paul Willoughby.  

The Clean House is one of those shows that you leave wondering why so many other people had such a good time. I don’t mean the civilians sitting near me, who seemed diverted if not overwhelmed by it, but the rest of the scribbling class. The play’s arrival in New York was preceded by a MacArthur “genius” grant for its young author, Sarah Ruhl, and a Pulitzer nomination. It then won glowing notices from many of the daily critics, who praised it as funny and heartfelt. All of which puzzles me, because if I had to muster a compliment for Ruhl, the best I could do is that what I saw wasn’t entirely her fault.

Onstage at the Newhouse, the play has a forced, schematic quality; you can still see hints of pencil where the paint went down. The play revolves, more or less, around Matilde, the depressive Brazilian maid of a high-powered doctor named Lane. On the bright white stage that depicts Lane’s house, the Latina outsider wears black. Get it? Soon, Lane’s husband, Charles, runs off with a woman named Ana. Would you believe her house is not very tidy? The furniture, Matilde reports to the boss, “doesn’t go together. But it’s nice.” In short, no uptight white-lady neurosis aqui.

Ruhl’s writing sometimes has a deadpan comic sense, as when Matilde suggests that if Lane started bossing her around like a nurse at the hospital, she might be able to overcome her dislike of cleaning and get to work. (“Nurse, polish the silver,” says Lane, and she does.) Even the premise of Matilde’s character, that she’s a maid who really wants to be a stand-up comic, has potential. But it’s not realized in performance. Ruhl’s script actually calls for the jokes to be told in Portuguese, with no translations. That would be annoying enough without Vanessa Aspillaga’s accented English making her sound, improbably, like a Soviet heavy from a Cold War–era cartoon. Though Blair Brown extracts what she can from Lane (in a Maureen Dowd–ish red ’do), Jill Clayburgh is grievously miscast as her sister. Having given a wonderfully nuanced performance as a conflicted religion professor in The Busy World Is Hushed over the summer, she’s wasted as a flighty clean-freak in pink sneakers. An easy gravity may be her greatest asset: Why discard it?

In part because director Bill Rauch inadvertently exposes its weak spots, the play comes to seem artificial not just in the way it’s assembled but in the way it views the human race. Again and again, Ruhl asks us to believe that people behave in ways that they don’t. It’s supposed to be whimsical, I guess, when Charles runs off to the Arctic to save Ana, or Matilde and Ana start flinging fruit all over the place. But the whimsy seems curdled. It’s hardly impossible to find a quirky way to tell the story of a disruptive outsider who liberates people from a stale and settled routine: Wes Anderson did it brilliantly, with humor and emotional weight, in The Royal Tenenbaums. (And Monty Python put the idea of a joke so funny it kills—an important plot point here—to much wilder use 30 years ago.) But there’s another example, even closer to home, that’s been on my mind lately.

Three years ago, Lisa Loomer’s play Living Out offered a laugh-out-loud-funny, arrestingly sad view of the relationship between rich Anglos and their Latina nannies. As the fight over immigration raged all summer in Washington, I kept waiting for one of the city’s theatrical do-gooders to revive the show or at least stage a reading. After last week’s Democratic takeover, you can bet the issue will return. I hope this time somebody will add Loomer’s drama to the conversation, even if it doesn’t march into town accompanied by the same fanfare that greeted The Clean House.

One of the lists I carry around in my head is titled “Things We Should Steal From the English,” and one of the items near the top of that list is “Caryl Churchill.” As this unpredictably political, stylistically adventurous writer shows no signs of defecting, it’s nice to see two young American playwrights reflecting her influence. In The Thugs, which just closed at Soho Rep, Adam Bock fashioned a crisp nightmare about temps stuck working in a vaguely menacing office. At its best, the play recalled Far Away, in which Churchill played political-dramatist-as-spook-artist.

Now at the Vineyard, Anne Washburn evokes the mix of political punch and linguistic experiment Churchill has showed in plays like Blue Kettle. In The Internationalist, a callow but mainly well-meaning American businessman named Lowell finds himself in a distant land, without a trace of the local tongue. Fiercely intelligent as ever, Washburn offers her usual provocative insights here, for instance on how the future will look back on the present. By withholding nearly as much information from the audience as she does from Lowell, she coaxes you into thinking anew about how Americans act in the world. Your loyalties, which are likely to lie with your bumbling, English-speaking countryman at the start of the play, probably won’t stay there long. Still, the gnomic quality of Washburn’s writing here somewhat dilutes its power: I was intrigued at just about every moment but wanted to be more deeply moved or provoked, to have it all hit a bit harder.

The play benefits from Ken Rus Schmoll’s deft staging, in which he gets some very talented artists to work at the top of their abilities. (I know several of the people involved, and have worked with a few of them, so I have some idea of how far-ranging those abilities are.) Only Zak Orth seems a trifle spasmodic as Lowell, flailing more than he should. This, too, may be taken as a comment on the behavior of Yankees abroad.

The Clean House
By Sarah Ruhl. Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Through December 17.

The Internationalist
By Anne Washburn. Vineyard Theatre. Through November 26.


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