Curtain Call: "The Clean House"

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

If plays had resumes, you'd hire Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House. In 2004, it won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, given to outstanding works by female playwrights, and it was a Pulitzer finalist in 2005. Ruhl herself received a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship in 2006 and a 2008 Laura Pels Foundation Award for Drama.

Ruhl is a serious playwright, and The Clean House a celebrated work. So to see CATCO's current production just sit there on D. Glen Vanderbilt Jr.'s immaculately bright set disappoints.

The play opens with promise as Eleni Papaleonardos tells a joke in Portuguese, her lustful body language translating the, um, thrust of it for the audience. Papaleonardos plays Matilde, whose parents had been the funniest couple in Brazil. Her mother literally died laughing at one of her father's jokes, prompting his remorseful suicide. Matilde moves to the United States, where she becomes the live-in maid for two doctors, Lane and Charles, too busy for anything but their jobs.

Picking up the comic torch from her late parents, Matilde makes it her life's work to concoct the perfect joke. Anything distracting her from that mission depresses her, including her job. To her rescue comes Lane's neat-freak sister Virginia, who makes a deal with Matilde to take over her chores. Then Lane's surgeon husband Charles falls in love with one of his breast cancer patients, an older woman named Ana.

As Virginia, Anne Diehl embodies the compulsive who fears her own laughter because it would be something out of her control. Which prompts one to wonder how Virginia builds such a strong bond with Matilde, who aims to provoke laughter.

Katherine Clarvoe traces the arc of Lane's evolution from arrogance to acceptance. Chuck Gillespie handles the underwritten role of Charles with a dignity the character himself often lacks. (Running off suddenly to Alaska to bring back a yew tree for its healing properties might call into question the credentials, if not the sanity, of most surgeons.) Kerry Shanklin understates Ana, creating a woman who had no intention of falling in love with her doctor or sweeping away his marriage.

Those contradictions built into The Clean House point to another element in its resume. Here, "magical realism" is mainly an excuse for whimsical dead ends like that yew. But perhaps it also inadvertently explains how Matilde, who now claims to be the funniest person in Brazil, rarely comes across that way in her English dialogue.

"Heaven is a sea of untranslatable jokes, only everyone is laughing," Ruhl concludes. But in straining for both humor and profundity, this House is clean out of luck.

"The Clean House"

When: Through April 26

Where: Riffe Center Studio One Theatre, Downtown