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Theater Review: Ruh’s ‘Clean House’ Is Good In Ridgefield, But Don’t Expect Funny

RIDGEFIELD — Winner of one of those MacArthur “genius” awards, and a Pulitzer Prize finalist, Sarah Ruhl, who turns forty this year, is one of America’s most prolific and successful playwrights. Her works are performed on Broadway, at repertory theaters from Yale to Berkeley, and, frequently, on local amateur stages as well.

Her Passion Play, which she began in graduate school, and finished eight years later, was one of the most exciting and thought provoking works I’ve ever seen. Eurydice, which sets the Orpheus legend in a public bath house, complete with water sloshing across the stage as a way of depicting the Greek Underworld, was a big hit in New York. And Dead Man’s Cell Phone, about a young woman who can’t resist appropriating the phone contacts of a man who dies suddenly at the next restaurant table — and makes up stories to tell the people who try to reach him — is a happy challenge for many community theater groups.

And then there’s The Clean House, which received a lot of attention when it premiered at Yale, and is currently being offered at Ridgefield Theater Barn. Directed by Julie Bell Petrak, who gets very good performances from her five person cast, the publicity for the play does it a disservice by describing it as a comedy about a Brazilian cleaning woman who longs to be a stand up comedian, and so would rather tell jokes than clean the house.

I know that Wikipedia describes it in just this way but I think that misses Ruhl’s point, and certainly it confused the young couple who was sitting at my table, whose most telling comment was “the acting is good but we expected something funnier.”

There are a few comic scenes, especially when the mobile visaged Nancy Sinacori is given free reign to mug for the audience, and Lidiane Fernandes as Matilde, the maid, does tell a few jokes — which she does in Portuguese, with translations flashed on the wall above her head. But Matilde is more of a one woman Brazilian-Greek chorus than a protagonist; and the play is dealing with some serious stuff:

Set in what the playbill lists as a “metaphysical Connecticut” the four principal characters besides Matilde are the fiftyish married couple Lane (Jessie Gilbert) and Charles (Nick Kaye), both doctors at a nearby hospital; Lane’s older sister, Virginia (Sinacori), who graduated from Bryn Mawr but is now an agoraphobe who cleans obsessively because it deflects her from thinking about all the awful things that happen in life; and Ana (Melinda Zupaniotis), an earthy, impulsive Argentine blonde, who falls in love with Charles when he operates on her for breast cancer.

The point of the play as I see it — and it’s a valid and worthwhile point — is that it is passionate love, even in the face of death, that gives life meaning. Lane and Virginia — and to some extent Charles — are so chilled by their awareness of mortality, that they aren’t really living. Lane and Charles see themselves as “serious” people, dedicated physicians with no time for frivolity. Virginia is a neurotic who fills her afternoon by secretly cleaning her sister’s house so that Matilde won’t have to, asking nothing in return except that Lane isn’t to know about it. (She would not approve.)

Only when Charles falls in love with Ana does he begin to realize what he has been missing. He wants Ana, but he also wants to share his new knowledge with the other women. And Ana, extroverted and friendly, wants to embrace them as well. Her enthusiasm melts their reserve and they end up taking care of her, even as her condition worsens and Nick crosses the continent in search of a cure.

For Matilde, who is mourning the death of her parents back in Brazil (portrayed in a flashback by Nick Kaye and Melinda Zupaniotis), laughter is a sort of symbol for existential insight, and she is biding her time, waiting to find the “funniest” joke that will unveil the hidden meaning of it all. Nick and Ana laugh, but it isn’t funny. Like the sad clowns in opera, their hearts may be breaking.

The cast do their jobs well, but Sarah Ruhl is not Neil Simon or Ray Cooney, and if you go to this show, don’t expect a farce. Then you won’t be disappointed.

(The production continues until April 5. Performances are Friday and Saturday evenings at 8, with matinees on Sundays, March 23 and 30, at 2 pm. Doors open one hour prior to curtain.

Tickets are $24 for adults, $20 for students and seniors. Seating is cabaret style and patrons are encouraged to bring food and drink to enjoy before the show.

The theater is at 34 Halpin Lane in Ridgefield. Reservations and more information is available at www.ridgefieldtheaterbarn.org.)

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