February 5, 2008

‘The Clean House’ needs a good scrub

(Actors Theatre presents Sarah Ruhl’s “The Clean House” through Feb. 23. Directed by Jon Jory. For tickets or more info, call 584-1205 or visit www.actorstheatre.org.)Some people actually enjoy cleaning. Others pay depressed strangers to clean their houses. In either case, the dirt wins. This seems to be the message of playwright Sarah Ruhl’s “The Clean House,” now onstage at Actors Theatre. The play opens with an unfortunate dose of expository dialogue aimed squarely at the audience. We learn that Matilde is a wayward Brazilian maid who’d rather write jokes than clean house. She wears black because she’s in mourning. Her boss, an uptight white woman named Lane, dresses in white and lives in a blindingly white house. Upon cutting herself while fixing a drink, Lane admits, “I’m as superficial as my wounds.“ She’s in a loveless marriage with Charles, a surgeon who lusts for his patient — an older woman named Ana. Ana convinces Charles to lop off her breast right away rather than undergo chemotherapy. He obliges her in a creepy surgical scene that’s depicted as a religious rite. Then there’s Lane’s sister, Virginia, who can’t stop cleaning, because if she did, she’d probably “slit her wrists or something.” The first time Matilde tells her “killer joke” in Portuguese is sort of funny. After about the third time, the attempt to spin the routine into a running gag wore thin. The rest of the play’s humor is similarly flat. For example, Charles rationalizes his affair with Ana by citing Jewish law, which demands you leave your spouse upon finding your “besheert” (soul mate). Predictably, Lane shrieks back, ”But you’re not Jewish!” Meanwhile, girlishly cursive text is video-projected on both sides of the stage to tell us what’s going on. This postmodern device might charm a generation that grew up on VH-1’s “Pop Up Videos,” but it’s a “cutesy” distraction to theatergoers. Adding to this sugar overload, director Jon Jory pulls from his bag of tricks the same scene-changing technique he used in last season’s light comedy, “Italian American Reconciliation.” Here, instead of commedia dell’arte sprites, scrub-wearing nurses pirouette on and off to rearrange the furniture. Despite these shortcomings, the show is a pleasant diversion in many ways. Felicity La Fortune’s performance as Lane is worth the price of admission. Among her many accomplishments, La Fortune appeared in Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” at the Lincoln Center. In the style of Kathleen Turner, La Fortune simply owns the stage despite being force-fed Ruhl’s trite Valley-girl dialogue (“I was, like, I didn’t go to medical school to clean my own house.”). La Fortune injects Lane with just the right amount of camp without going over the top. Audiences may remember Bernard Burak Sheredy (Lane’s feckless husband) in his powerhouse performance of Reb Saunders in last season’s wonderful “The Chosen.” Shamefully, he’s reduced here to a mere prop, although it’s fun to watch him tango with Ana (Rae C. Wright), both in reality and in Matilde’s magical realist imagination of her parents. Wright’s performance is absolutely fluid physically, but her accent sometimes sounds less Brazilian and more like she’s about to make big trouble for moose and squirrel. Alexandra Tavares is fine as Matilde. Last — and least — is Kate Goehring as Lane’s sister Virginia, whose timing was unfortunately off on the night I saw the show. Intermission could easily be omitted, as Act 1 is only 30 minutes long (the length of a sitcom). The longer Act 2 is a bit hard on the crowd. I heard one gentleman ask his wife on the way out, “What was the punch line in that joke about the ice cream? I fell asleep.” He was better off dreaming. Contact the writer at sdeatrick@gmail.com