Spotless Acting in Stage West's Clean House

Also: T3 hopes to clean up again with I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change

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."

Pam Dougherty (left) and Emily Scott Banks share a sisterhood of the traveling underpants moment in The Clean House at Stage West.
Buddy myers
Pam Dougherty (left) and Emily Scott Banks share a sisterhood of the traveling underpants moment in The Clean House at Stage West.

Details

The Clean House continues through February 24 at Stage West in Fort Worth. Call 817-784-9378.
I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change continues through February 24 at Theatre Too (at Theatre Three). Call 214-871-3300.

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 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.

 That single door also means no latecomers can sneak in once a show starts. Rather than turn anyone away at, say, 8:05 p.m. or even 8:15, the ushers at Theatre Too punish the audience who does arrive on time by making them wait until tardy ticketholders straggle in. On the night I attended, the production finally got running a full 20 minutes late. (Thank you so much, frizzy blonde in fur jacket, and I hope the older gent you were with realizes sooner than later that your chronic lateness is a symptom of narcissism.)

 All could be forgiven—stink, incarceration, late curtain—if I Love You were in any way lovable. But its crude, hoary sketches about blind dates, cheap dates, horny dates, ugly dates and every sort of date except those that grow on trees in warm climates, blend together like a long rerun of Love, American Style. Among the startlingly unoriginal observations: men don't ask for directions or call the day after, women like their G-spots tickled and weddings make everyone nervous.

 The songs come titled "A Stud and a Babe," "Why? 'Cause I'm a Guy," "Marriage Tango," "Shouldn't I Be Less in Love With You?" and "Single Man Drought." Each works itself into a lather underscoring tiresome gender stereotypes. To wit(less): "My hairline's receding/My ulcer is bleeding/My ego needs feeding/Why? 'Cause I'm a guy!"

 Reeking of lowbrow pre-Steinem attitudes, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change actually is a product of the '90s. Now in its second decade off-Broadway, more than 150 offshoot productions are running internationally. New ones pop up all the time. Small, needy theaters on other planets in this and other galaxies are probably doing the show, but I'm not on their mailing lists. Yet.

 The T2 version, directed by Terry Dobson, features Doug Jackson, Amy Mills, Sonny Franks and Lindsey Holloway. Franks and Holloway are capable actors and pleasant to watch. The other two aren't.

 At the performance I went to, the audience of fidgety, middle-aged couples looked as if they were on their first Match.com dates. Some of them laughed at some of the dumb jokes. I laughed exactly once, at this line delivered by Holloway: "Condoms don't even GO with lasagna!" It was all about her delivery.

 By 9:30 p.m., when the intermission finally arrived—poor schnooks in the seats clapped wildly, thinking it was the end—all the silly palaver about dating and mating and marriage and fighting had clustered into a persistent, whining throb behind my left eyeball. I bailed, bolting out that lone exit and taking the long flight of stairs up from purgatory two at a time. "I told you so," scolded Dame Judi. Bitch is never wrong.

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