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preview imageTHE CLEAN HOUSE
by Sarah Ruhl
Vancouver Playhouse Theatre
Oct. 21-Nov. 11

The Clean House is one of the strangest plays I’ve seen in a long time, and that strangeness may be the best thing about it.  American playwright Sarah Ruhl has written an absurdist sitcom with some of the flavours of both Gray’s Anatomy and The Aristocrats.  It’s full of contrivances that are relatively easy to forgive because of the pleasantly twisted ways in which it presents them.

Some of it feels familiar and straightforward in director Steven Schipper’s Playhouse and Manitoba Theatre Centre co-pro.  The house of the title is not so much clean as sterile in the stark modernity of John Thompson’s set design and in its emotional emptiness, the latter a reflection of Lane (Susan Hogan), the wealthy workaholic doctor who lives there.  Too busy to really inhabit her house—or her marriage or her life—she has hired a young Brazilian, Matilde (Sarah Henriques), to clean for her.  Lane’s sister Virginia (Patricia Hunter), in contrast, loves to clean.  It gives her something to do to fill up her emptiness.

At first, the only real wild card in this deck seems to be Matilde, the cleaning lady who doesn’t like to clean because it makes her sad.  So why has she come to America to clean houses? Okay, let’s move on.  One fascinating thing about Matilde is the story of her parents, the two funniest people in Brazil, who expired as the result of a fatal joke her father told her mother.  They keep appearing to her and the audience in passionate embraces, chuckling, giggling, and guffawing.  Matilde herself meanwhile, is trying to write the funniest joke in the world. Oh, and all her jokes are in Portuguese.

Things get stranger and more interesting in the second act when the actors who play Matilde’s dead parents (Andrew Wheeler and Nicola Lipman) reappear as Lane’s surgeon husband Charles, and his patient, Ana. When they fall in love after Charles has given her a mastectomy, and Charles leaves Lane for Ana, the plot thickens substantially.  A complex and utterly contrived relationship develops among the five characters.  There are curious alliances and remarkable revitalizations, predictable reconciliations, and death by joke. Throw an apple from your lover’s balcony and it may land in your wife’s living room.

For someone writing a play about comedy, Ruhl is sometimes curiously wide of the comic mark, making Virginia conventionally wacky and sending Charles on a ridiculously goofy journey towards the end. But much of the play is sweet and moving: the loving laughter of Matilde’s parents, the surprising late-life passion of Charles and Ana (played by Lipman with delightful vivacity), the bond that develops between Lane and the woman who stole her husband.

And there’s just enough mild weirdness to keep you wanting more.  

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Friday, November 3, 2006 9:44 AM
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