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Woman's Work

A play about housekeeping is too stylized to connect with audiences

Ken Stanek
Jessica Behar (left) and Dianne Hood come clean.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 11/11/2009

The Clean House

Sarah Ruhl

At the Fells Point Corner Theatre through December 6

Is Sarah Ruhl the next major voice in American theater? The 35-year-old playwright, an Illinois native now based in Manhattan, has already been a Pulitzer Prize finalist, the subject of a New Yorker profile, the winner of the PEN/Pels Award for Drama, and a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. Over the past two months, Marylanders have had a chance to consider the possibility for themselves as two of Ruhl's plays have been staged here. So far the evidence has been underwhelming.

The first show, Eurydice, opened at the Single Carrot Theatre in September. That show, a fantasia about a woman's journey into Hades to find her dead father, was a treat, but not so much for Ruhl's text as for the stunning visual imagery from director J. Buck Jabaily and designer Joey Bromfield--the explosion of ping pong balls from an opened door was merely the topper in a show whose look evoked a whole netherworld. The dialogue, on the other hand, had its moments of cleverness, but was too self-consciously literary and poorly organized to evoke much of any world.

The same problems undermine Ruhl's The Clean House, now at the Fells Point Corner Theatre. This more conventional play riffs on soap-opera themes as Lane, a baby-boomer doctor, tries to cope with a husband who won't come home, a Brazilian cleaning lady who won't start cleaning, and a jealous sister who won't stop. Director Steve Goldklang sets the action in Lane's minimalist Connecticut living room full of beige Scandinavian furniture and on another woman's two-chair balcony overlooking Long Island Sound; he simplifies the staging so the focus is clearly on Ruhl's script.

It can't carry the weight. Oh, there are some genuinely funny lines--mostly in the second act--and the soap-opera plotting does hold one's interest, but the characters never become three-dimensional enough to make us care whether they find happiness or not. They remain two-dimensional ideas that Ruhl has about class, gender, and housekeeping.

Lane (Holly Pasciullo) comes home from a long, hard day at the hospital to find that her suburban home is coated in dust. This is disconcerting because she has just hired Matilde (Jessica Behar) as a live-in maid. But the young Brazilian woman can't rouse herself to do any cleaning. Lane offers her pills to improve her mood, but the problem isn't that Matilde is depressed; the problem is that she just hates housework. And so does Lane. "I'm sorry, but I didn't go to medical school to clean my own house," she says.

Why did Matilde take a cleaning job if she hates cleaning? Why doesn't Lane just fire her? Ruhl avoids these questions because they reflect a reality principle that would terminate the play in the first act. Instead, the playwright invents a sister for Lane, Virginia (Dianne Hood), who genuinely enjoys housework. Even in her pearls and expensive green scarf, the former Greek scholar enjoys transforming dusty furniture into sparkling surfaces, dirty laundry into clean clothes. She works out a deal with Matilde to clean Lane's house while Matilde works on her true ambition: becoming Brazil's best comedian.

Virginia claims that a woman who "gives up the privilege of cleaning her own house" loses touch with the real things in her life. Real housewives never talk like this, of course, but playwrights hoping to impress New York critics do. Sure enough, Virginia finds evidence in the laundry basket that Lane's husband Charles (John Cramer) is having an affair. When Charles brings home the "other woman," Ana (Amy Jo Shapiro), the sparks begin to fly.

The workaholic, demanding Lane may be the least sympathetic character in the show, but she's also the most believable. Ruhl has given her the most realistic mix of flaws and virtues, and Pasciullo turns in the show's best performance. When she discovers that her sister has been cleaning her house while her paid maid sits around thinking up jokes in Portuguese, the red-headed actress registers her shock with a blinking shake of the head, as if someone had just thrown a drink in her face, as if she can't quite believe what she's hearing.

The problem is that the audience can't quite believe it either. Despite a terrific acting turns by Pasciullo and Shapiro and uneven but interesting performances by Behar, Hood, and Cramer, the play never quite lifts off. Ruhl resorts to explaining her own dialogue by flashing subtitled comments on Lane's living-room wall, but even that doesn't help. If this kind of academic posturing and cocktail-party cleverness is the next major voice in American theater, the institution is in more trouble than we thought.

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