Over the last 13 years, playwright, Sarah Ruhl, has been creating a unique body of work. She has garnered critical acclaim for her offbeat plays such as Eurydice, Dead Man’s Cell Phone and the Tony nominated In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play). The New Village Arts Theatre is currently producing her impressive dramedy, The Clean House.
Matilde (Nadia Guevara), a young Brazilian woman, has a job working as a maid for two doctors, Lane (Co-founder and Executive Artistic Director of New Village Arts, Kristianne Kurner) and her husband, Charles (Tom Deak). Little does Lane know that Matilde hates to clean, but Lane’s sister, Virginia (Hannah Logan) loves to dust, do laundry and all other household chores. Virginia soon suggests to Matilde that she will clean the impeccable home, decorated all in white, in order to provide more structure to her empty days. The lives of Matilde, Lane and Virginia become more complicated once they meet a 57-year-old breast cancer patient, Ana (Catalina Maynard).
At first, Ruhl’s dialogue comes across as being too self-consciously clever. Characters tend to share a ridiculously large amount of personal information to each other. The writer might have wanted to create original ways of introducing the people in her story, but her prose early on is occasionally pretentious.
Yet, when the plot kicks in, it is hard not to transfixed by Ruhl’s funny and poetic exchanges. She deals with diverse themes such as death, humor, true love and reconciliation. Ruhl handles all of these topics with refreshing honesty.
Many of the laughs come from the unusual personalities of women in The Clean House. They are portrayed by a strong and reliable cast.
Guevara leads the acting ensemble with a delightful sense of wonder and her joke-telling passion. She has an easygoing presence during conversations with her fellow performers.
Kurner is initially icy and harsh playing the unfriendly Lane. Proving, that she is not being typecast after playing the wise Jean Louise Finch in NVA’s recent staging of To Kill A Mockingbird. As events progress, Kurner is able to display plenty of humanity, especially when acting opposite Maynard.
Maynard’s portrayal of Ana is beautifully tender. One of her strengths is the ability to win the audience over with her radiant smile and warm delivery.
Logan downplays her looks as the kind, but deeply sad Virginia. A major scene involving Virginia at her angriest provides a hilarious showcase of Hannah’s comedic skills.
Deak is simultaneously empathetic and naïve depicting a surgeon dealing with a midlife crisis in his previously organized life. Theatregoers feel for him, even when laughing at his cluelessness.
Director Claudio Raygoza (ion theatre company founder and Executive Artistic Director) stages many moments involving flights of fancy. His direction during several imaginary sequences and episodes outside of Lane’s abode have a dreamlike tone.
Lighting designer Luke Olson as well as sound designer and composer Kevin Anthenill help make this possible. This is especially true during an introduction to Ana’s home, where these elements of theatre depict an ethereal atmosphere.
The technical staff, including projectionists Justin Jorgensen and Chelsea Kaufman, display lighted captions on the home’s walls, that set up different sections of the tale. This device is used to funny and touching effect.
Brian Redfern’s scenic design mostly consists of Lane’s picturesque household. It serves as a metaphor for the doctor. While she wants her place to appear perfect, her personal life is a mess. That might sound heavy handed, but it is visually clever.
By the time The Clean House reaches its climax, Ruhl makes every single person in her narrative deeply compassionate. This results in a thoughtful conclusion that results in an emotional wallop.
Though Ruhl’s voice takes some getting used to early on, The Clean House ultimately is a highly rewarding journey. Her newest work, The Oldest Boy, will be playing at the Lincoln Center Theater this month. If all goes well, her new adventure could be another notable accomplishment.