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A CurtainUp Review
The Clean House

I didn't go to medical school to clean my own house — Lane

I love to clean. . .If You do not clean how do you know how you've made progress in life?—Virginia who sees cleaning as "a privilege" . . .a way to bring a sense of order and satisfaction to her disappinging life, something she can do better than her doctor-sister who could not match her declaration that "if I were to die at any moment of the day, noone would have to clean my house,"

As a kid I though if a floor was dirty, look at the ceiling.—Matilde who has accepted a job to clean Lane's house although her real enthusiasm is for jokes and he;r ambition is to find "the perfect joke."

Jill Clayburgh and Blair Brown
Jill Clayburgh and Blair Brown (Photo: Joan Marcus)
The house created by Christopher Acebo for Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House is clean all right. You could eat off its sleek white tiled floor. The walls and curtains, and furnishings are also white as fresh fallen snow. The impression, even when furniture (also white) is rolled out, is not just clean but sterile and antiseptic and it doesn't take a seer to predict that sooner or later one of Ruhl's characters will mess up this pristinely crisp set.

This physical setup paves the way for what starts off as a sitcom-ish domestic farce about how when the busy doctor who owns the house hires a maid who hates to clean, her sister, who loves to clean, secretly takes over the maid's chores. But while this situation gets the play off to a riotously funny start, it doesn't take long to see that Ms. Ruhl is using that clean house as a metaphor to explore much bigger issues. No matter who keeps these sisters' houses clean and orderly, both must deal with painful inner disorders and the messy situations and feelings that can't be vacuumed away like so many dust motes.

This tragi-comedy with its big themes and generous touches of magic realism has opened at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theatre on a wave of buzz that began with its 2004 premiere at Yale Repertory Theater . Generating that buzz is the fact that Ms. Ruhl, who's only thirty-two, has already collected the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for Best Play Written in English by a Female Playwright, previously awarded to Paula Vogel, Caryl Churchill, and Wendy Wasserstein and more recently, a MacArthur "genius" award. What's more, The Clean House was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005.

The current Lincoln Center production again has Bill Rauch who directed the Yale Rep premiere at the helm and is just one stop in nine scheduled productions (so far—there will no doubt be even more). CurtainUp has already caught two other productions with different directors and actors and since there's a lot to say about this play, you'll want to read our Philadelphia and DC critics' very astute comments linked at the end of this review.

While The Clean House is far from the theatrical equivalent of a spot free home, it is indeed heartening proof that the institution often dubbed as a fabulous invalid still has plenty of talent to keep its heart ticking. Like another justly acclaimed young playwright, David Lindsay Abaire, Ms. Ruhl, has a canny gift for balancing realism and fantasy, tragedy and comedy, and to make characters who could easily be caricatures into real, memorable people. Also remarkable, for one so young, is that all but one of her characters are at least twenty years her senior. The one young character, the twenty-eight year old maid Matilde is the catalyst to change the sterile lives of the career focused Lane and her cleaning obsessed sister Virginia — and it's Ana, a sixty-eight-year old woman with whom Lane's husband Charles, a surgeon, falls madly in love while diagnosing her breast cancer, who brings about emotional rebirth for everyone.

Besides mixing magic realism with the part sitcom, part soap opera story and taking on issues of unresolved sibling relationships, undernourished love, caretaking without real caring, death frantically fought off or met head on, Miss Ruhl cleverly gives double roles to two of the actors to make Matilde's memories of her dead parents concrete. She also makes good use of discreetly projected super titles to move her story forward.

While the second act's escalating fantasy elements includes a beautifully choreographed scene where Charles is performing a mastectomy on Ana, it gets to be somewhat too joke-y when Ana refuses hospital care and Charles, determined to save her life, goes to Alaska to cut down a tree known to have medicinal powers.

Our reviews from critics who saw the play with other actors indicate that there are plenty of actors who are capable of doing justice to these quirky yet resilient characters. However, you're unlikely to find a better cast than the one in the current production.

Vanessa Aspillaga's Matilde is funny and lovable, from her opening monologue which consists of a joke delivered in Portugese to the scene in which she finally finds her "perfect joke." As endearing and even funnier is Jill Clayburgh as the dust smitten Virginia. The scene when she uses her beloved vacuum cleaner to wreak havoc with the living room she has so lovingly kept clean and orderly is beyond priceless.

Blair Brown lets us see her becoming more human bit by bit. Concetta Tomei makes Ana, as convincing as it's possible to make a character who is more than anything a symbol of the life force and the power of love. John Dossett is, as always, excellent in the dual role of Charles and the father evoked in Matilda's mind.

Bill Rauch and his design team expertly facilitate the shift from comic reality to surrealism. Acebo's expansion of that all white set to include a blue sky and Ana's seaside deck is especially noteworthy. The Clean House may not appeal to those whose tastes are geared to more straightforward, well-made plays— but anyone with a taste for something fresh and new, it's as enjoyable as the bushels of hand picked apples that show up on Ana's deck.

For more plot details and thoughts about this play, see The Clean House Philadelphia review and The Clean House DC Review
Playwright: Sarah Ruhl
Director: Bill Rauch
Cast: Vanessa Aspillaga (Matilde), Blair Brown (Lane), Jill Clayburgh (Virginia), John Dossett (Matilde’s Father/Charles) and Concetta Tomei (Matilde’s Mother/Ana).
Sets: Christopher Acebo
Costumes: Shigeru Yaji
Lights: James F. Ingalls
Sound and Original Music: André Pluess
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, including intermission
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street, (212) 239-6200.
Tuesday - Saturday @ 8pm, Wednesday & Saturday @ 2pm, Sunday @ 3pm
From October 5, 2006 to December 17; opening October 30, 2006
Tickets: $70
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 4th performance
After a 2 week holiday hiatus, extended from January 2 to January 28, 2007.

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