October 1, 2008

Romantic Comedy a Balancing Act / Reality, the Esoteric and the Mystical Mix in ‘The Clean House’

Amusing, poignant, and sometimes illogical, playwright Sarah Ruhl's romantic comedy, "The Clean House," is a delicate balance of reality, the esoteric and the mystical. Reality is an actual historical reference to William Stewart Halstead, a prominent American surgeon credited with the invention of sterile surgical procedures and the surgical glove. Ruhl maneuvers this into an analogy for love.

The esoteric is represented by one character's reference to bashert, the Jewish belief in one's predestined soul mate. This becomes Charles' reason for leaving his stable and predictable marriage for another, surprisingly older, woman - a patient on whom he has performed a mastectomy.

As for the mystical, well, it's one thing when the audience can see a character's thoughts, but quite another when one character stumbles upon another character's imaginings and quite abruptly asks, "Who are those people?"

Ruhl, currently the subject of a local festival jointly sponsored by the Barksdale and the Firehouse theatres, defies convention in making supporting characters the central figures.

The problems start when Lane and Charles, a married couple - both doctors, and both played with frenetic zeal by Kelly Kennedy and John Moon - hire a Brazilian maid, Matilde, a student of the comedic arts who refuses to actually clean the house. Bianca Bryan's Brazilian accent and spoken Portuguese sound authentic enough, but when Charles falls in love with Ana - a free-spirited, vivacious Argentine woman played by Robin Arthur, who all but steals the show - Matilde and Ana become fast friends, conversing in a sensuous blend of English, Portuguese and Spanish. Interestingly, Ruhl finds it quite unnecessary to translate, leaving the audience to rely on tattered remnants of high school Spanish and body language. Heaven, says Matilde, must be like a sea of untranslatable jokes, where everyone is laughing.

The cast is rounded out by Jan Guarino, another scene-stealer, who plays the role of Lane's cleanliness-obsessed sister, Virginia, as a cross between Shakespeare's Puck and Neil Simon's Felix - the neat freak of "The Odd Couple." Guarino's repressed character throws the best tantrum ever seen on a stage - dumping plants and tossing decorative stones, magazines and sofa cushions, ending in a furious wrestling match with a vacuum cleaner.

Matilde's search for the perfect joke - a journey whose end she fears will lead to her death - takes a sentimental twist at the end. Her journey is paralleled and somewhat tempered by Charles's mukluking trek to Alaska in search of a yew tree, known for its healing powers.

In the end, Lane's pristine white contemporary home - beautifully designed by Ron Kellor - is a shambles, with the characters stepping obliviously through the wreckage while mending the torn edges of their own lives.

Lane's personal journey is likewise reflected in her wardrobe. Designer Sue Griffin dresses her in solid white, transforming by stages into cream, then beige until, at the end, she dons a yellow sweater vest.

"The Clean House"

Theater review

Where and when: Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn, through Nov. 2., Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.; select Saturdays, 2 p.m. Tickets: $38; $35 for students, seniors

Info: (804) 282-2620

Contact Julinda Lewis at [email protected]


Originally published by LEWIS; Special Correspondent.

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