The Clean House
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 8, 2006
There's a scene in The Clean House where Matilde, a Brazilian woman working as a maid for a rich American doctor, and Ana, an older, free-spirited lady from Argentina, are tasting some apples they recently picked together. Matilde says she wants to bite into them until she finds one that's perfect. Ana, surprised, suggests that Matilde's been in the US too long, being so willing to waste so many apples. But Matilde talks her into the project, and so Vanessa Aspillaga and Concetta Tomei, the two actresses who portray Matilde and Ana, bite into nearly a dozen apples in succession, which they then toss onto the Mitzi Newhouse stage, until they find the "perfect" one.
In the 15 weeks that The Clean House is scheduled to run, that amounts to around 1,300 apples wasted. Unless there's some apple recycling happening, the good people at Lincoln Center should be ashamed, and so should playwright Sarah Ruhl, the current wunderkind/genius-grant-winner who is The Clean House's author: just because you know you're being profligate doesn't diminish the act of profligacy.
Ruhl, who is clearly intelligent and talented, throws away a lot more than just some apples here. A genuinely lovely, poignant theme—the idea that one should not waste one's life doing the wrong thing or putting up with the wrong person—is buried under a sitcom plot of embarrassing triteness and ultimately wrapped in a package that feels as platitudinous and cliched as a public service announcement. Furthermore, the play is riddled with gimmickry that only barely masks the playwright's laziness: not just the rampant direct address that's apparently de rigueur nowadays, but also projected titles that identify who's speaking or summarize what's about to happen in a scene. A key plot device is lifted almost verbatim from an old Monty Python episode. Even the note labeled "Place" in the program is too precious for its own good: "A house that is not far from the city and not far from the sea."
I should pull back now and tell you something about the story. The aforementioned house (which is not, strictly speaking, the only setting of the play) belongs to Lane (Blair Brown), a successful doctor who doesn't know how to take care of herself. Matilde is her maid, only Matilde doesn't actually like to do housework. Luckily, Lane's sister, Virginia (Jill Clayburgh) LOVES to do housework, and because she is so bored (she's finished cleaning her own house by three in the afternoon), she volunteers to do Matilde's job at Lane's house as well.
In the course of doing her sister and brother-in-law's laundry, Virginia starts to come across ladies' undergarments that don't look like anything Lane would wear. Before Virginia can follow through on her suspicions, however, Lane receives word from her husband Charles (John Dossett) that he's leaving her for another woman—a cancer patient named Ana (Charles is also a surgeon; in a flashback sequence that suggests that Ruhl has little acquaintance with the facts of cancer treatment, Charles and Ana meet "cute" as he tells her she has a malignant tumor and she demands it be removed the next day).
So Charles leaves Lane for Ana and somehow she (and we in the audience) are supposed to feel happy for them because they're soulmates; Matilde decides to work for Charles and Ana in addition to Lane because she really likes them all; and when Charles deserts Ana to find a particular kind of medicinal tree in Alaska, Lane goes to care for the once-again-ill Ana, eventually moving her into her home, creating a cozy post-feminist family of ex-wife, sister, maid, and husband's new wife. Even with a cast as skillful as the one assembled here, I failed to be convinced, especially when the characters kept doing things that belied what seemed to be true about them, such as wasting perfectly good apples for no reason.
In the end, The Clean House squanders the talents of two formidable famous actresses (Clayburgh and Brown) and another one less-well-known but just as excellent (Tomei), along with the resources of New York's foremost nonprofit theatre company, which have been applied to the fullest to a piece that just doesn't feel substantial enough to deserve them. The Clean House is entertaining, as far as it goes—but it hardly goes anywhere at all: its feel-good platitudes certainly don't seem worthy of the Pulitzer Prize nomination and MacArthur Fellowship that its author has received. That level of accolade should be reserved for something more substantive and interesting than what's on view here, which on reflection is more a comment about the way awards and grants are given these days than about the merits and deficiencies of this particular script. Nevertheless, if you're going to The Clean House expecting to have your own house shaken up or your own attitudes refreshed, you are likely to be very disappointed.