Sarah Ruhl's melancholy comedy The Clean House opened at Horizon Theatre May 30, the same day the film Sex and the City swept the nation. The movie's runaway popularity reflects how much women crave movies about themselves and their fantasies. Female audiences might not be so hungry, however, if they spent more time at the theater, where stories by and about women have far greater representation and far greater complexity.
Several of Atlanta's leading theaters have female artistic directors, including Horizon, the Alliance Theatre, Synchronicity Performance Group and others. Lisa Adler directs Horizon's smart and lively production of The Clean House, but any of the other theaters would've presented a worthwhile staging as well. The 2005 Pulitzer Prize nominee offers a strong example of a contemporary play that's about women, but appeals to all audiences.
Where Sex and the City wears its "love and labels" ethos on its sleeve, and most romantic comedies end with the heroine at the altar or in the delivery room, The Clean House offers a poetic portrayal of female relationships based on family, class, romantic rivalry and shared pain. Instead of shopping, getting the guy or having a baby, Ruhl's women grapple with the largest possible issues, such as finding a purpose in life and accepting the inevitably of death. The play's also funny and breezy, despite carrying such a potentially heavy load.
The two main characters' wardrobes reflect their opposing sensibilities. Brazilian housekeeper Mathilde (Suehyla El-Attar) wears black to mourn her deceased parents and reflect her unhappiness with cleaning homes when she'd rather be a stand-up comedian. Her employer Lane (Carolyn Cook), a successful doctor, wears a suit that's as blindingly white as a doctor's jacket, and she expects her house to be comparably pristine.
Lane's neat-freak sister Virginia (Jill Jane Clements), an unemployed homemaker, makes a deal with Mathilde to secretly clean Lane's house to occupy her own empty days. While doing the dirty laundry, Virginia and Mathilde discover clues that Lane's husband Charles (James Donadio) may not be as perfect as he appears. As the play progresses, Lane's once-immaculate living room becomes increasingly squalid, reflecting her need to put her own house in order.
In 2005 I saw a production of The Clean House at San Diego's South Coast Repertory, a venue the size of the Alliance's main stage. Compared with that show's icy, cavernous set, Horizon's smaller playhouse is much warmer, and the Atlanta performances prove comparably loose and ingratiating. Most of Mathilde's jokes are in Portuguese, but El-Attar has such vivacious delivery that they still entertain. She displays a confident comic timing when interacting with the rest of the cast that reminded me of the Marx Brothers (although I guess El-Attar would be a Marx Sister). Clements affirms her gift for humor, hinting at the high-strung anger beneath Virginia's cleanliness obsession, as well as Virginia's possible crush on Charles.
At first, Cook conveys more of the brittleness of a corporate ladder climber than the sense of entitlement one finds from successful doctors. As the play goes along, she takes pleasure in its physical comedy: "I am all grown up!" she says at one point while jumping in the air and stamping her feet like a child. More importantly, she conveys Lane's gradual self-discovery as she moves from rage to bereavement to forgiveness, ending the play as a wiser woman than when it began.
Ruhl crafts quotable lines such as "A prayer cleans the air like water cleans the dirt." What makes her an interesting and a "hot" playwright on the national scene is her treatment of nonverbal moments. The Alliance Hertz Stage production of her Eurydice earlier this year was full of silent sequences that built to lovely epiphanies. In The Clean House, opera music provides a hilarious soundtrack to Charles' stylized surgical sequence with his beloved patient Ana (Mary Lynn Owen). Projected words frequently provide a snappy counterpoint to the action, almost like the titles of an old silent movie. When two characters gaze into each other's eyes, the text reads, "They fall in love," followed a little later by, "They fall in love some more."
The Horizon production doesn't always rise above some of the play's shticky qualities. Ruhl seems a little too amused by the maid-who-doesn't-clean premise, which feels more worthy of an old TV sitcom. At times her embrace of "magic realism" seems like an excuse for gross improbabilities, such as the wild errand that takes Charles away for crucial events near the end of the play. (Plus, while he's gone he sends a telegram, an old-fashioned touch that's hard to swallow for a play that takes place "now"). Mathilde's obsession with the potentially lethal "world's funniest joke" probably shouldn't evoke the old Monty Python sketch as much as it does.
Near the end of The Clean House, the four female roles bond over chocolate ice cream, savoring it mostly in silence. The Clean House earns the right to indulge in what could have felt like a chick-flick cliché, given how much Ruhl's women develop throughout the play, and how faithfully the play adheres to its own quirky rules. Steel Magnolias, one of the most womany plays ever written, provides a line that could sum up The Clean House's sensibility: "Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion."
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