By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
From a chance remark overheard at a party, East Coast playwright Sarah Ruhl was inspired to create The Clean House, now playing at Fort Worth's Stage West. It's a gentle and oddly persuasive play—very funny too—about the relationship between women and dust, and about women's ability to accept and forgive each other's faults when life gets really messy.
As Ruhl recounted to National Public Radio's Susan Stamberg, she heard a female doctor at a party say, "My cleaning lady is depressed and won't clean my house. So I took her to the hospital and had her medicated. And she still won't clean!"
And that's what happens at the beginning of Ruhl's play, which became a Pulitzer finalist two years ago and helped win the writer a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a "genius grant."
Ruhl's main character, a prickly 50ish doctor named Lane, adds this: "I didn't go to medical school to have to clean my own house."
Who tidies whose stuff, and why, becomes the central riddle of The Clean House. Women are weird about for whom they clean and who they will and won't let clean for them. The four women in this play are forced to break all sorts of taboos about the traditional boundaries of domestic chores.
Lane and doctor-husband Charles (Bill Jenkins, so handsome it hurts) occupy an all-white home that's as sterile as an operating room. In contrast, Matilde, their Brazilian maid (Emily Scott Banks), wears black, including her mood. She can't clean because she's in mourning for her parents, comedians who died within days of each other. Instead of vacuuming, Matilde curls up on a spotless marshmallow of a chair in Lane's living room and tries to polish "the perfect joke," one so intensely funny it will make anyone who hears it die laughing.
Jokes are told throughout The Clean House, almost all in un-translated Portuguese. Ruhl fills her play with such quirks. Characters lob half-eaten apples off a balcony (some roll into the audience). Matilde's parents waltz back from the dead in her fantasies, though sometimes Lane sees them too. Scene titles flash on a screen above the stage.
And then there's Virginia, Lane's dowdy older sister (played beautifully by Pam Dougherty). She loves cleaning so much that on a trip to Greek ruins, she wonders, "Why doesn't someone just sweep them up?" Having nothing to do after 3:12 p.m., when her own house is shipshape, Virginia secretly offers to do Matilde's work. She and the young maid spend afternoons in mutual bliss—Matilde telling jokes in Portuguese and Virginia methodically ironing and folding Lane and Charles' clean laundry. "If you do not clean," asks Virginia, "how do you know if you've made any progress in life?"
The new order is upended when Charles runs away with a 67-year-old cancer patient named Ana (Sylvia Luedtke). Ana eventually comes to live with Lane and Matilde in a home that's a veritable pig sty...yes, we've got quite a little play here. And isn't that a nice change from most new works for the stage? Ruhl has created two hours of provocative storytelling on themes other playwrights haven't flayed to pieces. And when matters veer into whimsy here and there—Charles takes off for Alaska in the second act—that's really not so unlike some unexpected detour in real life.
Stage West's production, directed and designed by Jim Covault, is blessed with clear, subtle acting. The wry antagonism among the women softens gradually into sweet solidarity. Banks is outstanding as Matilde (good work on the Portuguese), and Dougherty seems finally to have found her footing as an older actress unafraid of looking unglamorous.
Even with a heavy splash of sentimentality dampening the humor at the end, it feels good to shed some tears at this play. In all the best ways, The Clean House offers a cleansing experience.
Theatre Three has revived I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change every year since, what, the late 1950s? It's no surprise then that it's back in an engagement extended through February 24.
The thing's a perennial moneymaker for the little playhouse in The Quadrangle, like A Christmas Carol is at Dallas Theater Center. In an initial run from 2000 to 2003 (I was kidding about the '50s), the four-person musical by Jimmy Roberts and Joe DiPietro earned Theatre Three $1 million in box office sales, according to the theater's press materials. If the audience hearts it that much, why shouldn't T3 trot it out for profitable encores?
Until its most recent incarnation, however, I'd avoided the show. I'd heeded the voice of my inner critic (she's wise and sounds like Dame Judi Dench), who kept telling me I shouldn't go. Kind of the way Oprah advises her viewers to "trust your gut" when it comes to dicey situations. But Theatre Three has a persuasive P.R. lady named Kimberly, and she made a convincing case for reviewing it, seeing as how people keep buying tickets year after year.
Off I trundled to Theatre Too, the underground bunker beneath Theatre Three that no amount of air freshener can clear of its mildewy bouquet. After debuting in the larger theater, ILY, YP, NC has lived on ever after in the ugly space downstairs. Here's my beef with T2: It has one exit. That exit is on the stage. If, for some reason, you have to get out of the theater during a performance, you are forced to become part of the show in order to escape it.