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The Clean House

In order to tell a good joke, you have to think your problems are very small and the world is very big.

Naomi Jacobson (left) and Sarah Marshall
N. Jacobson and S. Marshall
(photo: Stan Barouh)
Having settled into a spic 'n span new space, Woolly Mammoth is offering a wonderfully funny, quirky and life-affirming production of Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House as their final show of the 2005 season. Naomi Jacobson's and Sarah Marshall's battling siblings offer up a rare treat of women in the comedic throes of mid-life crises.

Lane (Jacobson) has hired a Brazilian housekeeper because, as she puts it, "I'm sorry, but I didn't go to medical school to clean my own house." Unfortunately her housekeeper Matilde seemingly suffers from depression. After putting Matilde on medication, the good doctor thinks all is well. Except that it's not Matilde the housekeeper who is cleaning, but Lane's sister Virginia who is actually dusting, mopping and wiping up the bathroom tiles. Virginia (Marshall) is a lonely woman in a benign marriage who is imploding from a life of fear-induced safe living. Meanwhile, Lane is a woman so tightly wound, she makes granite counter tops look cozy. And Matilde (pronounced "Machu-gee"), simply wants to create the perfect joke as a way to transcend her own personal grief.

Recently transplanted from her homeland, Matilde is recovering from the duel deaths of both her parents. Her mother died while laughing (choked to death on a bit of spittle) from a joke her father had created for their wedding anniversary. Stricken with grief, her father then committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. So Matilde has come to the United States to leave the unhappy memories behind her. Unfortunately, she is in the wrong career, because she is a housekeeper with no interest in cleaning anyone's house, not even her own.

Virginia, however senses that Matilde is as lonely as she and makes an offer to do the cleaning, so long as Matilde does not inform Lane of the duo's agreement. Virginia is a woman who self-describes by announcing "If I were to die, at any moment during the day, no one would have to clean my kitchen." As she tells Matilde, by 3:15 PM her house is spotless with every item neatly tucked in its place. And then she... has nothing to occupy her mind.

Lane and Virginia are sisters who get along like a mongoose and cobra. Each eying the other warily, their sibling rivalry has never ebbed. Lane needs to constantly feel superior, while Virginia seethes inside from her own sense of inferiority.

Lane's surgeon husband Charles has recently begun to spend more and more time at the hospital and Virginia neatly surmises that if you don't clean your own house, you won't really know your own life. And if you don't do your own laundry, you won't know your husband is having an affair...

Ruhl's play takes a white American, upper class longing for purchased order and tidiness and juxtapositions it against a Latin American love of free flowing ambiguity. The result is writing that is somewhat poetic and at the same time, cleanly almost sparingly written. The characterizations are witty and there are moments of wonderful comedic insight on culture, love and sibling relationships.

The Clean House is not without its rough spots. The wrap up of the play is somewhat forced. The arrival of Charles could actually be snipped out and reworked to have a more congruous sense of forgiveness. In fact, it actually undoes the wonderfully touching "wash women at the community fountain coming together to share their lives" moment which occurs just prior to his reentry. And the timing of the play needs to be extended. The idea of tightly wound Lane coming to terms with her philandering husband and failed marriage makes no sense in what appears to be a six week (or less) time period.

Director Rebecca Bayla Taichman has an innate sense of the Zen aspects of House, while also understanding the screwball comedy touches which flourish between the characters. The timing of the lines and the attitudes are wonderful. The pace never lags. Much of the joy of the performances is contained in the actors' slow building expressions and escalating mannerisms. Like a good joke or a coming storm that will clear away the humidity, the piece builds upon itself in an enveloping crescendo and then gently subsides away.

Narelle Sissons' multi-use set design is a metaphysical, Zen-like space with the antiseptic aura of an operating room. It's lovely, but ultimately the kind of room where everyone is afraid to sit. A space of white, beige and tan, that it's cosmopolitan chic is immediately evident. Minimalist decor rules and nothing personal is contained in this antibacterialized "living" room, where ultimately no one is really living but simply existing. A 25-foot closet door holds a plethora of cleaning supplies which the carpet and rectangular design seem to lead directly to, as if they are pathway to a temple entryway and an oracle-like religion of cleanliness. A lone plant -- the one bit of color in the room that is perhaps symbolizing new growth -- stands sentry to the closet door. The use of huge windows and long flowing white drapes meld fantasy and reality and add to the spiritual aspect of the comedy, which ultimately is about barren people coming alive again.

Colin K. Bills lighting uses a variety of white light to set the tone. The opera-like overhead titles add to the dramatic satire aspect. Anne Kennedy's costumes evoke an aura for each character. Lane is dressed solely in white, Virginia in beige, Matilde in black, and Charles in muted green. Ana, the dying woman, is dressed in floral prints since, living in the moment, she is truly the most alive of the group.

Michael Kraskin's sound design, interspersed with Martin Desjardins' original music, creates a wonderful sense of place. Gerard Kunkel's guitar playing with Michael Sommers' lyrics and Michelle Desjardins vocals bring the Latin flavor to the surface.

The ensemble cast is terrific. Guenia Lemos' Matilde is infectious as the woman bringing life via humor into what amounts to a tomb-like space. Ms. Lemos' line delivery and expressions belie her drab, black outfit and add an orphan child aspect to her character.

Mitchell Hébert's Charles is a sort of Ivy league everyman. You see him at a cocktail party, listen to him speak competently on many subjects and then forget about him. Perhaps not the idea of dashing that you expect from Lane and Virginia's poetic descriptions, but when you realize that this is their idea of dashing, then he seems correct for the role. And Mr. Hébert adds a winsomeness to Charles that is engaging.

As Ana, Franca Barchiesi crafts an independent woman who loves life while acknowledging the reality of dying. As the most alive member of the cast, hers is interestingly the least humorous character. The others are funny in their dysfunction. As Ana, Ms. Barchiesi provides us a woman who has become in tune with herself by simply accepting her flaws and the realities of life. Thus she becomes the straight man in this farcical romp. It's to Ms. Barchiesi's credit that she finds the subtle humor and more tender emotions that make us find Ana a likeable character.

Looking as if they are enjoying every minute, Naomi Jacobson and Sarah Marshall as the battling Lane and Virginia, provide moments of physical humor that conjure up the screwball comedies of Hollywood. Whether it's Ms. Marshall having a breakdown and trashing Lane's living room or Ms. Jacobsen's flinging herself on a vacuum cleaner, the two hit upon a variety of comedic levels. While Lane hides her insecurities, Virginia wears her's like a name badge on her sleeve.

In characteristic fashion, Ms. Marshall's quirky Virginia is a woman living life on the edge of sanity. Mistrustful of any passionate emotion she lives in fear of coming undone, even though she is inwardly imploding under the stress of not expressing herself. Her maniacal facial expressions, decisive pauses and unique way of phrasing a line make Ms. Marshall's performance thoroughly enjoyable and wonderfully idiosyncratic. Thus when she says "My sister has given up the privilege of cleaning her own house." and then "I love dust." you are assured of an interesting experience.

Meanwhile Ms. Jacobson's Lane is a like a rubber band about to be shot across the room. Uncomfortable in her own skin, she is almost clinically sterile. Her two second pause reactions to other's lines and constant look of pained confusion add depth to statements like "I don't always understand the arts." The irony of her being a doctor who seems completely uncomfortable around people is evident in every aspect of her performance. Yet her child-like crouching on the floor or couch show an inner humanity that is completely devoid in the physical appearance. You understand how Charles could leave her, while at the same time you feel for her because she has obviously pushed aside a warmer, inner aspect of her psyche in an attempt to win the race to be at the top and hide her insecurities.

Set in "Metaphysical Connecticut" the The Clean House is a witty look at the spirituality of everyday life and becoming aware of the clutter that is building up in your soul like the dust in your living room. It's definitely a good time. So tidy up your abode and then head on down to Woolly!

Editor's Note: Our Philadelphia critic also liked this play. Her comments on the play when it played in her town can be found here.

The Clean House
by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman
with Guenia Lemos, Naomi Jacobson, Sarah Marshall, Mitchell Hébert, Franca Barchiesi
Set Design: Narelle Sissons
Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills
Sound Design: Michael Kraskin
Costume Design: Anne Kennedy
Choreographer: Karma Camp
Music Supervision and Original Music: Martin Desjardins
Original Lyrics for "Navagacao": Michael Sommers
Vocals on "Semper Amarus Amor": Michelle Desjardins
Guitar: Gerard Kunkel
Running Time: 2 hours with 1 intermission
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D Street NW
Telephone: 202-393-3939,
WED - SAT @8, SUN @2 & 7; $30-$48
Opening 07/11/05, closing 08/14/05
Reviewed by Rich See based on 07/17/05 performance

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