"Life is about context," Lane tells her maid, Matilde, in Artists Rep's production of The Clean House. "If I met you at a party... I might say you're very interesting... but I don't want an interesting person to clean my house." A Pulitzer finalist, playwright Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House is engaging, amusing, and blissfully compact. It's more quirky and clever than genius, however, and is best suited to an audience that gets jokes about NPR and can chuckle politely about the need to justify oneself to the "help."
Lane (Susan Coromel) is a tightly wound doctor who requires order but won't clean her own house. But cleaning depresses Lane's Brazilian maid, Matilde (Amaya Villazan), and dirt is piling up. Lane's sister Virginia (Marilyn Stacey), a housewife who has sublimated her self-denied passions into a fetishistic love of cleaning, offers up a trade: She'll clean Lane's house if Matilde doesn't tell. Matilde agrees, kicks back, and focuses her energies on her dream of coming up with the world's funniest joke. Things move along swimmingly until Lane figures out their scam—on the same day that her husband Charles (Shelly Lipkin) comes home to announce that he's leaving her for an older woman named Ana (Linda Williams Janke).
Ruhl has created relatively two-dimensional characters, but she has given them sharp, believable dialogue that is expertly timed and delivered by this strong ensemble cast. Reality and fantasy mingle together seamlessly, and high-drama moments are amusingly glossed over with supertitles that describe the emotions while the characters get on with the business of unfolding the story. It's a fun gimmick, applied just sparingly enough to stay interesting.
It's not an outrageous play, nor remarkably poignant—it rehashes familiar tropes of bland white women and spicy Latinas, and tells the tale of middle-aged women stepping out of social isolation and coming to grips with the lives they have. It does so, however, with a light, comedic flair that includes a lot of great lines and some stellar onstage moments. It's exactly the sort of the play that Artists Rep is good at producing— in other hands it wouldn't work nearly as well—and they do it justice.