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San Francisco by Richard Connema

An Imaginative Production of Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House

Also see Richard's review of Burn This

Clean House
Heather Ehlers, Lucinda Hitchcock Cone,
and Stephanie Beatriz

TheatreWorks is presenting the regional premiere of Sarah Ruhl's comedy-drama The Clean House through February 12th. Ruhl is rapidly becoming one of America's best playwrights. This Susan Smith Blackburn Award winner and finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize has been playing in many major theatre companies since it first premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre during the fall of 2004. The New York Times declared it "a memorable play where the messes and disappointments of life are as much a part of its beauty as romantic love and chocolate ice cream." The highly ingenious play had its West Coast Premiere at the South Coast Repertory Theatre during the winter of 2005.

The Clean House centers around Matilde (Stephanie Beatriz), recently coming from Brazil to what is called in the program "a metaphysical Connecticut." She is hired by Lane (Heather Ehlers), a very busy medical doctor, to clean her house. However, Matilde would rather make up jokes than polish and dust. She remarks, "If the floor is dirty, look at the ceiling." As the strictly organized doctor says, "I don't want an interesting person to clean my house, I just want my house clean." Matilde's parents were the two funniest people in Brazil and her mother actually laughed herself to death. Matilde's goal in life is be a comedienne with the perfect joke so funny you will laugh yourself to death.

Lane's sister Virginia (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone) is an unhappy woman obsessed with cleanliness and orderliness. She makes a deal with Matilde to take over the cleaning job without Lane's knowledge. She is now a happy camper, going about clearing and dusting her sister's house while Matilde uses the free time to work on that perfect deadly joke.

The Clean House becomes a bizarre soap opera in the second act when Lane's husband Charles (Michael Cooke), a noted surgeon, brings home Ana (Olivia Negron), an older woman with breast cancer. He says he fell in love at first site when he performed a mastectomy on her. Charles declares that he has found his perfect soul mate, explaining that under Jewish law if you find your "besherte" (soul mate) you are obliged to break off your relationship with your wife. Lane drolly replies "but you're not Jewish." The whole second act is very reminiscent of a play by Christopher Durang or Albert Innaurato as the gags come fast and furious.

The Clean House contains many wonderful scenes, such as the second act opener that takes place in the operating room of the hospital when Ana is getting her mastectomy. It suddenly becomes hilarious when both doctor and patient mouth a famous romantic opera aria from "La Traviata" as he discovers his "besherte". A combination of live and shadow play keeps this metaphysical farce moving right along. Comical titles appear above the stage for each scene.

Stephanie Beatriz (Anna in the Tropics at Pittsburgh Public Theater, Juliet in the national tour of Romeo and Juliet) is delicious as Matilde. She first comes out dressed in a black leotard with red canvas high sneakers to tell a hilarious joke in Portuguese. Even though the audience does not understand the language, her body movements are uproarious. She is vigorous and jovial in the role of the comedienne wannabe.

Lucinda Hitchcock Cone (Night of the Hunter, Cabaret, Ragtime plus many other regional productions) gives an entertaining and daffy performance as Virginia who just loves to clean and clean and clean. Heather Ehlers (Broadway Born Yesterday and Off-Broadway Educating Rita) is very good as the overstrained doctor Lane. Olivia Negron (Broadway Cuba and His Teddy Bear and Serious Money) breathes a slice of life into her performance as the cancer patient. Michael Cook (many New York productions including The Incomparable Max) is first rate as the doctor who has found a new soul mate.

Director Juliette Carrillo captures the miraculous pragmatism of the playwright's comedy. The set by Kate Edmunds is Lane's striking white on white living room - everything is white, from the couches to the cabinets. There is a brilliant splash of color in the second act when the upper half of the stage becomes a bright, colorful balcony belonging to Ana.

The Clean House plays through February 12 at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. For tickets call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

TheatreWorks' next production will be the regional premiere of Nilo Cruz's steamy Pulitzer Prize winning play Anna In the Tropics, opening on March 8th and running through April 2. It plays at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield, Palo Alto.


Photo: David Allen


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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