Sarah Ruhl won the 2004 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, given annually for the best play in English by a woman, for "The Clean House," now being presented locally by Carpenter Square Theatre. It is good to see the work of this critically acclaimed playwright. The acting in this CST production is fine, but the script may read better on the page that it actually plays on stage.
In "The Clean House," Ruhl seems to be trying to write a "Steel Magnolias" for intellectuals. The play begins as a modern comedy of manners and ends as a malady-of-the-week tearjerker. Or rather, it might draw tears, if the characters and plot were compelling enough for the audience to care about them.
In the play, Matilde (Charlotte Rose), a Brazilian housekeeper who does not like to keep or clean house "? much to the exasperation of her employer, Lane (Vikki Simer) "? longs to be a comedienne. She keeps trying to think up the perfect joke. The play recalls the old, sad-clown storyline, because Matilde never achieves perfection.
Lane and her sister, Virginia (Kris Schinske), are a study in contrast. Virginia is a failed scholar, but a successful housewife; Lane is a successful physician, but a failed housewife. At times, the sisters seem to envy each other, but how much and if they really do is not made clear in Ruhl's meandering script.
Lane's husband, Charles (Timothy Fall), also a successful physician, becomes smitten with a patient. Charles feels liberated by the affair, if dottily so. After introducing the patient/lover, Ana (Lisa Houghton), to Lane and Virginia, he invites everyone to go apple picking, of all things.
"This is not a foreign film!" Lane retorts. After the apples are picked, the play turns a bit surrealistic, which, at least, adds a modicum of interest to a production that in every other respect is pretty dull stuff.
In addition to directing, Rhonda Clark, along with Nick Backes, designed the scenery. The play is set in "a white living room in a house that is not far from the city and not far from the sea." The set design consists of a few pedestals in various shapes and sizes, resembling furniture. All of the surfaces, including the stage walls and floor of the Arena Theater, are painted a stark white, made more stark under William Hughes' lighting design. Oversized murals of several houseplants adorn the stage walls.
What exactly this set design means is unclear. Anyway, it's white, just as the playwright called for, and it's probably easy for stagehands to clean up after the show. And the set will need cleaning up.
"The Clean House" is advertised as a comedy, but you would be hard-pressed to find a comedy with less humor. All of the jokes in the play being told in Portuguese may have something to do with it.
Late in the second act, Matilde avers that "heaven is a sea of untranslatable jokes." That could be an accurate description of "The Clean House."
The Clean House stages at 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, through June 6 at Carpenter Square Theatre's Stage Center, 400 W. Sheridan.