Chicago Theater Review: THE CLEAN HOUSE (Bluebird Arts at the Athenaeum Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 30, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

LAUGHTER IS THE WORST MEDICINE

Humor and hygiene play off each other in Sarah Ruhl’s much-praised but not altogether satisfying 2004 romantic comedy. Now fitfully revived by the new Bluebird Arts troupe, Luda Lopatina Solomon’s staging feels no less half-hearted than this mood-shifting script deserves. Bluebird’s two-act domestic drama is a strange amalgam of magic realism and quirky characterizations, a rather literal-minded play where jokes can kill and messiness becomes a moral matter.

Jaimelyn Gray (Matilde), Deborah Hearst (Virginia) in Bluebird Arts' THE CLEAN HOUSE. Photo by Anthony La Penna.

The protagonist in this terribly self-aware piece of flimsy whimsy is Matilde (Jaimelyn Gray), a Brazilian maid who would rather not clean, thank you very much, because it depresses her. She prefers to practice a future (and, presumably, doomed) career as a stand-up comic (and delivers three jokes in Portuguese that sound much funnier than they translate). Apparently, making people laugh is a family tradition: It’s how Matilde’s jocular parents met; indeed, her mother died laughing, slaughtered, euthanasia-style, by a killer joke from her comic dad.

Jaimelyn Gray (Matilde), Deborah Hearst (Virginia), Laura Sturm (Ana), Susan Steinmeyer (Lane), Joe McCauley (Charles) in Bluebird Arts' THE CLEAN HOUSE. Photo by Anthony La Penna.

Maltide works for high-strung, self-entitled Lane (Susan Steinmeyer), a patrician doctor who has just unhappily separated from her doctor husband Charles (Joe McCauley), who in turn has shacked up with his Argentinian mastectomy patient Ana (Laura Sturm). Though dying, Ana emits a “glow” that drives her jealous rival Lane bonkers. But then Lane is as self-deprecating as she is insecurely arrogant: When she cuts herself, she declares, “Even my wounds are superficial.”

Finally, there’s Lane’s clean-freak, dust-phobic sister Virginia (Deborah Hearst), who loves to tidy up. She ends up doing Matilde’s job, which is not nearly as funny as the play thinks it is.

Jaimelyn Gray in Bluebird Arts' THE CLEAN HOUSE. Photo by Anthony La Penna.

By sheer power of a playwright’s fiat, both households combine. The result is a volatile kind of sisterly solidarity: Physician Lane cares for Ana while their shared-husband Charles heads off to Alaska to cut down a yew tree that might cure his new love’s breast cancer. As the play continues, the stage gets progressively messier, a seeming escape from the control-freak cleanliness represented by emotionally repressed Virginia.

In the end, there really is such a thing as a fatal joke.

Laura Sturm (Ana), Jaimelyn Gray (Matilde) in Bluebird Arts' THE CLEAN HOUSE. Photo by Anthony La Penna.

The Clean House, a crowd pleaser for all its faults, debuted in Chicago at Goodman Theatre and was revived last year, also at the Athenaeum Theatre—and it was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. Perhaps there’s more here than meets the eye or ear. The play’s problems could conceivably be those of the production.

Laura Sturm (Ana), Joe McCauley (Charles) in Bluebird Arts' THE CLEAN HOUSE. Photo by Anthony La Penna.

No question, director Solomon goes for a forced zaniness that turns several characters into frustrated stand-up jesters. Mugging and more emphasizes the sheer quirkiness of Ruhl’s precious people, but then too much real realism would undermine the magic kind. As for the play’s pretensions to comment on class prejudices, well, that’s as it may not be.

Susan Steinmeyer (Lane), Deborah Hearst (Virginia) in Bluebird Arts' THE CLEAN HOUSE. Photo by Anthony La Penna.

This philosophically un-American magic realism (we prefer our wishful thinking to be more pragmatic) may well be the play’s problem, as well as Bluebird’s failed challenge. The plot delivers too many forced oddities that give the action the quality of a dream. Disbelief gets suspended too much when Ruhl is clearly making up the rules as she goes. Perversely, this makes Matilde’s stand-up situations feel more like improvisation than persuasive make-believe. The jokes are on us.

Susan Steinmeyer (Lane), Laura Sturm (Ana), Deborah Hearst (Virginia), Jaimelyn Gray (Matilde) in Bluebird Arts' THE CLEAN HOUSE. Photo by Anthony La Penna.

photos by Anthony La Penna

The Clean House
Bluebird Arts
Athenaeum Theatre
Studio Three, 2936 N. Southport Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2:00
scheduled to end on October 25, 2014
for tickets, call 773.526.3628 or visit www.bluebirdarts.org

for info on other Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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