The Clean House
Inaugural event extolls messiness but needs a good scrubbing
|Bluebird Arts presents|
|The Clean House|
Review by Clint May
Fellow fans of Project Runway will note that there is often a fine line drawn by the judges between “fashion” and “costume.” What keeps one from becoming the other is—as with so many things—the details. The Clean House is the kind of quirky show that can turn from theatre to sitcom on the strength of its execution in the finer points.
When I reviewed the Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House a year ago (same place, different company), there seemed to be a bit of aging already showing around the seams, and some overly ‘cloying’ sentiments that at times made me feel as though I was in a television studio audience and not a Chicago theatre. What really sold the production were the performances, particularly a glorious turn by Susan Fay as an uptight doctor. Without those key performances to help gloss over the messy stitching, the production falls apart on the runway. What should be magical becomes trite, characters become one-dimensional and plot structure becomes unbelievable contrivance. New-to-the-scene Bluebird Arts has taken on what should be a crowd pleasing romcom sort of tale for their first production. They do just an ‘okay’ job. If this were most any other story I’d say they were pretty good for a freshman effort.
For Matilde (Jaimelyn Gray), there’s a fine line drawn for the perfect joke. It’s somewhere “between an angel and a fart.” She should know, born in laughter as she was to the funniest people in Brazil. After her mother dies from the funniest joke her father ever told—and her father’s subsequent suicide—she moves to the States to pursue her dream of being a comedian. She somehow ends up the unwilling maid of Lane (Susan Steinmeyer), a frigid and career-driven doctor with an estranged husband (Joe McCauley). Lane’s nearby sister Virginia (Deborah Hearst) is also unhappily married and resigned to giving up her own dreams of being an archaeologist and compensates by becoming a total neat freak. When she discovers that Matilde would rather spend her days polishing jokes than silverware, she offers to help her out on the down-low just because she has nothing better to do. The two begin to bond as only people who are waiting for their real lives to begin can.
Everything goes to pot when the good doctor Charles finds his bashert (a Yiddish term loosely meaning soul mate) quite randomly in the form of a patient he’s going to operate on. Ana (Laura Sturm) is a free-spirited woman and the promise of everything Lane isn’t, so of course Charles brings her over to the house to meet his wife. That would be one of those contrivances we’re expected to swallow since no one here is Jewish, they just heard the term on NPR. It exists solely as a way to set up the second act wherein Matilde becomes Charles and Ana’s housekeeper part time while still tending to Lane as her life spirals into depression in the wake of the separation. When Ana’s cancer returns, everyone’s response forces a little personal reflection and growth.
Say this for The Clean House, it takes its moral of the power of messiness to heart. Flitting through tones with wild abandon, its potential for joyousness gets bogged down by the weak characterizations that feel pulled from a stock catalog of female archetypes (and this play was a Susan Smith Blackburn Prize winner and Pulitzer finalist). Ana and Matilde are two ages of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Lane is the Bitch, Virginia is the Housefrau, and even Charles is just the Mid-Life Crisis Husband. Though Matilde is the central character, it’s Lane’s journey that has the most potential for saying something true and real about our acceptance of the ineffability of life outside our pristine living rooms. (Strangely, for some reason both productions I’ve witnessed have omitted a key transformative scene from the last moments that completes the loop of Matilde’s acceptance of her parent’s death.)
In the script notes for the play, Ruhl indicates that everyone in the cast should be able to tell a really good joke. Though everyone in the production is talented, I don’t think that is true here and that might be the biggest failing of this production, excluding Gray herself. This character actually improved in my eyes this time around while the others got flattened out. It was as though everything that didn’t work the first time I saw this was exacerbated and its saving graces left in the dustbin.
To sell a reality that is more-real-than-real (a “metaphysical Connecticut”), you gotta sell the hell out of it to transcend from forced whimsy to the sublime. I must give points to Bluebird and Director Luda Solomon for even attempting such a tricky production out of the gate just like Crabapple* did last year. I might even go see Remy Bumppo’s upcoming version in December just to continue comparing and contrasting. As a man I greatly admire likes to say, when it comes to comedy, you have to “make it work.”
*I’m not entirely certain Crabapple Productions existed beyond the showing of The Clean House for the Something Marvelous series, and they may have formed just to make that one work. No evidence of their continued existence is to be found.
The Clean House continues through October 25th at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport(map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $30 (senior, student, children $18), and are available by phone (773-935-6875) or online at OvationTix.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at BluebirdArts.org. (Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Anthony La Penna
behind the scenes
Luda Solomon (director), Carl Ulaszek (technical director), Rick Sims (sound design), Natasha Dukich (costume design), Lindsay Bartlett (dialect coach), Anna Lafontant (stage manager), Igor Velgach (set design), Rashida KhanBey (choreographer), Anthony La Penna (photos)