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Sarah Ruhl is a rapidly rising playwright. Her Eurydice received an admired production at Yale Rep and her Passion Play was done by D.C.’s Arena. Her calling card, however, The Clean House, is only now receiving a major production in New York, at Lincoln Center Theatre’s Mitzi Newhouse space.
LCT was right to provide a home for Ruhl’s leap into Manhattan’s big leagues. This sometimes surreal comedy provides plenty of laughs, gives its four-woman, one-man cast room to display expert timing, and contrasts vividly with LCT’s other current offering, Tom Stoppard’s sprawling The Coast of Utopia.
What The Clean House does not do, consistently, is suggest a playwright with highly developed linguistic inventiveness: in this breezy two-act evening only once did I lean forward because a line gave off verbal sparks.
The pleasures here are furnished by an experienced cast (Blair Brown and Jill Clayburgh among them), who transform the sitcom setups into moments of acute audience recognition.
The storyline could have come from that “domestic goddess” Roseanne Barr, in her TV show’s odd final season, when she transplanted her working- class cast to upmarket surroundings. In Ruhl’s play, a Brazilian maid, Matilde, who works in the American home of two doctors, Lane and Charles, is depressed because she hates to clean. Lane’s sister, the ditzy Virginia, assumes Matilde’s tasks, an arrangement that works well until Lane detects the ruse, just as she is discovering that her husband is having an affair with one of his patients.
Not only does Ruhl negotiate this plot, she also unpacks an essay in comedy: Matilde, whose parents were both connoisseurs of humour, is searching for the perfect joke. When she finds it, the play becomes a demonstration of an old vaudeville idiom: that a comedian, when successful, “kills”.
If Ruhl’s categories are stock – Latins are messy, sexy, and funny; Anglos are neat, uptight, and cerebral – this production, directed by Bill Rauch and outfitted with a gleaming white- leather and surgical-tile set, showcases a writer worth following.
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