The Clean House is a Little Too Clean

cleanhouse.jpgSarah Ruhl’s The Clean House is her first major production in New York City, even though she was a runner-up for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in drama and won a MacArthur Fellowship (otherwise known as the genius award) in 2006. She comes bearing much critical praise, and given that she is only 32 years old, this could prove to be a problem. Will she live up to Charles Isherwood’s effusive claim in his New York Times review that The Clean House is “one of the finest and funniest new plays you’re likely to see in New York this season”?

In a strange way, and despite its apparent experimental techniques, it is a very safe play, just the kind they love at Lincoln Center: pretty, witty, well acted, with nothing too disturbing. And the play has a lot of laughs. But where are the crazy raw edges of life, the truly risky discoveries?

For all their eccentric suffering, the sisters at the center of the story, Lane and Virginia, are in fact stock characters: the slightly too tightly wound good doctor and the ditsy housewife who overly loves cleaning. It is all so pretty, like Hollywood Technicolor movies of the Fifties. If this is the best there is on the scene today, as Isherwood claims, then we have truly reached the heights and depths of the triumph of the bourgeoisie. It’s Wendy Wasserstein with a slightly more surreal consciousness. If we New Yorkers want to see a brilliant female playwright, we need to experience a Caryl Churchill play. And if we’re looking for sources of Ruhl’s art, then John Guare should surely be mentioned. His work too has been highly theatrical, bizarre, and comic, with a mix of black comedy and realism very like that of Ruhl.

In fact, Ruhl’s play is a cross between lesser Guare and Terrance McNally, very clever and more than a tad zany, but ultimately a French pastry view of life. These characters don’t bleed (even though the successful doctor has apparently stabbed herself accidentally with a can opener on the day she finds out her surgeon husband is in love with another woman). You know you’re in trouble from how Isherwood ends his review: “We may never come to a full understanding of the jokes life plays, but the wisest and possibly noblest response is to have a good laugh anyway.” Talk about saccharine sentiments.

Are we to laugh at the woman who dies of breast cancer, who happens to be the surgeon’s new love for whom he leaves his wife? I am of the school that any subject can be humorous, but some of the cancer storyline scenes start to become more cartoons than actual dramatic moments. The doctor goes off to Alaska, well bundled up in the cold, to find a particular, healing tree to cure his new love. We see him at the back of the stage lugging a monstrous branch, with snow falling on the lovely stage set, and the audience laughs at his romantic mission. I found myself feeling alienated. Does she really have cancer? She dies in front of us laughing at “the perfect joke,” as told by the Brazilian maid who doesn’t like to clean. I start to feel the youth of the writer; it’s all very funny like in the comic books because it’s not real. We don’t believe in these deaths and betrayals.

The elements of magical realism that are sprinkled throughout the play become tricks of the “aren’t I clever?” sort. Perhaps I’m being too hard on Ms. Ruhl, but that’s because I fear that overpraise of her work may prove the death knell of her talent. Right now she’s clever, very clever—and also talented—but she’s not deep. And the best comedy is deep. Think of Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Edward Albee. Ruhl plays with issues like the complications of the employer/maid relationship in contemporary times, but she provides no special insight. Was I surprised that the cleaning woman was a bright, articulate, educated young comedian from South America? Not at all. Many highly educated people from other parts of the word end up doing menial work in the United States. Tell me something I don’t know. That’s what I want in art. I want to be grabbed and surprised. I want the taste of the play to linger in my mouth and my mind for days after seeing it.

All the actors were excellent, particularly Jill Clayburgh as the untalented sister obsessed with cleaning, and Vanessa Aspillaga as the juicy, sexy, funny Brazilian maid with a mission to create “the perfect joke” (a mission too often reiterated; some pruning would help). The set is a brilliant white monument to money and cleanliness.
The costumes were effective, the direction by Bill Rauch smooth.

I certainly wouldn’t say, “Don’t see the play.” It’s humorous; it passes the time; it entertains. But to the degree that it’s the best we have out there, it’s a sad statement about contemporary American theatre. I think it may be more of a comment on the economic fears of commercial theatre producers than the actual situation in the country. If you checked out Denis Leary’s FX television series Rescue Me, you would get more deep humor and rage in one 60-minute segment than anything you are likely to see in the Broadway arena. - Victoria Sullivan

The Clean House is playing at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center through January 28, 2007.

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Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding or laughing, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees.

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