‘ The Clean House,” by Sarah Ruhl, is a quirky, often funny, sometimes sad play with overtones of magic realism. The actors at the Brickyard Theatre, directed by Anet Carlin, focus on its offbeat style while creating characters to care about.
The play, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer, mixes the bizarre and funny with a basic story that, without those elements, would be more like a soap opera.
It begins with strangeness, as a young woman addresses the audience with what appears to be a long joke, told in Portuguese, and not translated. She is Matilde, a Brazilian who explains that her mother and father were very funny and created jokes all the time.
Her father spent a year creating a joke for their anniversary, and her mother died laughing at it. Matilde is trying to create the perfect joke, but she’s afraid she might die if she does.
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Matilde is the maid of Lane, a self-important physician, and her husband, Charles, a surgeon. In the opening scenes Lane chastises Matilde for not cleaning her house, and Matilde confesses that she hates to clean. After Lane leaves for work, her sister Virginia arrives and tells Matilde that she loves to clean, and they make a deal to have Virginia secretly clean for her sister Lane.
This part of the story is a comical prelude to the more serious story. Lane discovers that her husband has fallen in love with one of his patients, an Argentine woman named Ana, on whom he performed a mastectomy. Charles introduces Ana to the household as his soul mate, then leaves to move in with her. The second act gets more serious, but the theatrical presentation of the story continues to reinforce the alchemy of the real and the unreal. Wry comments appear on an illuminated screen, and Matilde’s dead parents appear now and then as she thinks of them and continues to try to create the perfect joke.
Although the play’s style is quirky, and the acting is often over the top, the characters are developed through clever, insightful dialogue. Marlena Mack is terrific as Matilde, cute, funny and innocent as she deals with the others in this scenario. Christine Hance is both comical and a bit sad as Virginia, describing her obsession for cleaning, the one thing in her empty, boring life that gives her the satisfaction of seeing results. Mary-Ann Maloof is good as Lane, the doctor, cold and seemingly heartless at first, but mellowing as she sees her marriage collapse and as she begins to bond with the other women in spite of herself.
Charles is played by David Norum as rather hapless as he falls in love with the free-spirited Ana and realizes the things that he has missed in his marriage. Cynthia Anthony is good as Ana, who becomes a catalyst for the other characters.
“The Clean House” is a satisfying theater experience, with humor, pathos and enough weirdness to keep us guessing — like life itself, which continuously plays jokes on us. At the end, Matilde wraps it up by saying, “I think heaven is a sea of untranslatable jokes, except everyone is laughing.”
An interesting totem of faces by Stephen Taylor is a centerpiece of the set, reflecting the atmosphere of fantasy in the show. The outdoor stage in the courtyard of the Atascadero home of director Carlin and her husband Charley Carlin is designed as Lane’s living room, with a balcony at one side representing Ana’s home. The audience is seated at tables under the stars.
Along with its regular performances, which include dinner, the Brickyard Theatre offers shows to nonprofit groups as benefits.