"The Clean House" by Sarah Ruhl arrived at Lincoln Center Theater after being produced by and praised at many of the nation's most prominent regional nonprofits. Along the way, the play was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize and Ruhl was given a MacArthur "Genius" grant. That's a lot to live up to and, somewhat unsurprisingly, there's a distinct disconnect between the hoopla and the work that's on stage at the Mitzi E. Newhouse.
The play concerns two sisters, the chilly doctor Lane (Blair Brown) and the ditzy, neat freak Virginia (Jill Clayburgh), and an eccentric, willful maid Matilda (Vanessa Aspillaga) who is hired by Lane to clean her house. However, since the Brazilian menial doesn't care much for dusting and spends much of her time trying to conjure up "the perfect joke," her chores are instead happily performed by Virginia. All lives are torn asunder when Lane's doctor husband Charles (John Dossett) falls for and runs away with the elderly Ana (Concetta Tomei), whom he has just treated for breast cancer. Charles and Ana hire Matilda away; Lane starts drinking; Virginia has a fit and destroys Lane's all-white apartment; Ana's cancer returns; Charles bolts for Alaska in search of a cure. In short, things get messy-whimsically, ludicrously messy.
And that, in short, is Ruhl's rather simply homily of a message: life is messy, and if one is to cope, one must embrace the messiness. Or, put another way: a clean house is not a happy house, just a tidy one. Ruhl does her best to dress up the thinness of her story with numerous detours of tricked-up avant-gardism: comical projections tell the audience the unlikely things that are going on in the characters' heads; Matilde tells a very long joke all in Portuguese, with no translation; Charles' adventures in Alaska grow increasingly cartoonish; half-eaten apples rain down from above, falling on the stage with one thud after another.
It's all so relentlessly, self-consciously inventive, one could yawn. Ruhl is part of a irksome generation of American playwrights that eschews realism and seriousness at all costs. Heightened language, self-parodying dramatics, an absurd tone and an anything-goes structure are the trademarks of this school. Cogency, sturdy plot construction and intentional meaning are anathema, and strictly for squares. As these sort of plays go, "The Clean House" is not a bad example. It's better-built than most and here and there Ruhl's displays a distinctive voice.
But it also has of the aesthetic's faults: the stage personae live completely in their heads; off-kilter dialogue substitutes for actual character; quirky plot devices do heavy lifting the playwright should be shouldering (those projections); and the end result reeks of self-congratulatory graduate school cleverness. The LCT production is adequate enough, though the cast, particularly Brown and Clayburgh, seem somewhat at a loss as to the correct way to approach the material. One gets the feeling that a set of befuddled aunts and uncles have been made to perform the work of the very cool (and probably very embarrassed) niece.