Seen Off Broadway: One of the pleasures of The Clean House is to be able to write about a few new designers, who got Sarah Ruhl’s odd but goofily charming play up and running at Yale Rep in 2004. Its New York debut is at Lincoln Center’s smaller space, the Mitzi E. Newhouse, which seemed smaller still, as if seating had been removed to accommodate the set. However it was accomplished the space was properly intimate, drawing us into a production that balances on the knife-edge of terminal whimsy but stays focused on a core humanity, which you will find hard to believe as I outline the plot. Matilde, a Brazilian maid winsomely played by Vanessa Aspillaga, prefers making up jokes (told in her native Portuguese) to cleaning—which, needless to say, does not sit well with her employer, a starchy, smock-wearing doctor, Lane (Blair Brown). Unknown to Lane, her neurotic, neat-freak older sister, Virginia (Jill Clayburgh) befriends Matilde and steps in to polish, compulsively, the silverware, which save for a green houseplant is pretty much the only non-white element in Christopher Acebo’s initially antiseptic set. When Matilde and Virginia discover brightly colored panties in Lane’s laundry, the show’s two other characters, Lane’s wayward surgeon spouse, Charles (John Dossett) and much older lover, Ana (Concetta Tomei), a breast-cancer patient, are introduced; previously the actors had flitted across the stage as Matilde’s star-crossed, joke-telling parents, now deceased. By Act Two things have gotten very messy in The Clean House, nimbly directed by Bill Rauch, before the characters realign and reconnect for a moving finish.
There are plenty of laughs in The Clean House, which is a kindred spirit to some of John Guare’s plays; Charles explains that his taking of a soulmate is in accordance with ancient Jewish law, though none of the characters are Jewish, and Brown and Clayburgh are ideally matched as squabbling sisters. The very specific tone of the piece is well-illustrated by the design. Midway through the second act, Acebo’s bleached-looking set opens up to reveal the second-floor balcony of Ana’s more casually decorated seaside home, where she and Lane converse (pictured) in one scene. Snow begins to fall along the sky cyclorama backdrop, taking us to, of all places, Alaska, where…but that would be giving things away. I was impressed at how the set did triple-duty all in one scene, and enjoyed how Matilde and Ana threw apples down on Lane’s living room, which gets a rather horrific, but emotionally necessary, makeover, from the suspended balcony.
Shigeru Yaji’s costumes, which run the gamut from Matilde’s black mourning clothes to Ana’s stunning floral print dress, are spot-on, with Clayburgh’s pink sneakers a study in someone trying to dress to be cheerful. The show has a lovely original score from sound designer Andre Pluess, which transports us aurally through the piece’s different environments. Lighting veteran James F. Ingalls does some very subtle work—when the house is at its cleanest the lights are at their brightest, and they go down by degrees to suggest its degradation. (A hot tangerine hue is introduced when Matilde’s parents dance through the space.) The scenery was constructed by Center Line Studios and automated by Showmotion; the lights are from Hudson Light and Sound and the audio by Masque Sound. New York was once a clean slate for Ruhl, the recent recipient of a Macarthur “genius” grant; The Clean House has made an auspicious mark on the theater season.—Robert Cashill