“The Clean House” a quirky satire about social class

Brazilian maid who hates cleaning raises issue in suburban home

By Lucy Komisar

It‘s a telenovela! declares Mathilde (Vanessa Aspillaga), the Brazilian maid, in Sarah Ruhl‘s riff on the roles and status ascribed by social class. Part fantasy, part deftly devised social commentary, and part a passel of good jokes, the play unfolds in a delightful zig zag of unexpected turns.

The insouciant housekeeper, Mathilde, doesn‘t like to clean houses. “When I was a child,” she recalls, “I thought, if the floor is dirty, look at the ceiling.” She spends her time inventing good jokes (which we hear in Portuguese) and dreaming about her parents, who had a very good time dancing, making love and telling jokes.

Jane (Blair Brown) is an absolute character opposite. A doctor whose white garb matches her white furniture and rug, she is rigid where Mathilde (dressed in black) is laid back as well as gifted with a controlled humor and sensuality. That division extends to the barrier Jane sets between herself and the maid. She declares, “I don‘t want an interesting person to clean my house. I just want my house cleaned.” She thinks that servants should to be talked to as a doctor to a nurse.

The class barriers are broken by her sister, Virginia (Jill Clayburgh), and her husband Charles (John Dossett). Clayburgh sparkles as the nervous suburbanite, Virginia, who likes to clean. As her house is done by 3 o‘clock, she makes a deal with Mathilde to let her secretly clean Jane‘s house.

Charles, also a doctor, further smashes the rules about the social divisions by falling in love with Ana (Concetta Tomei), an older woman on whom he has performed a mastectomy. Not only does her operation presumably ought to make her less desirable, but the engaging Ana lives in a small apartment, albeit with a balcony overlooking the sea, that is no match for Jane‘s soigné elegant suburban home.

Charles declares that according to Jewish law, you are legally obligated to break off relations with your spouse if you find a soul mate. Jane replies, “But you‘re not Jewish.” He counters, “I heard about beshert on a radio program.” Mathilde, who is looking for the perfect joke, may have found it in the nutty conversation of a couple in process of breaking up.

More about class: Virginia, a Bryn Mawr graduate, declares that she has gone to work in a store and found solidarity on the checkout line.

Ruhl and director Bill Rauch have created a surreal theater piece that smoothly mixes fantasy and reality to integrate conflicts of gender and class. They have the advantage of excellent performances, especially by Vanessa Aspillaga who glides though the play like a worldly sprite, and Jill Clayburgh, who gives an amazingly vivacious portrayal of the sad sack sister whose husband really wanted a housekeeper.

This play is more than the sum of its parts.

“The Clean House.” Written by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Bill Rauch. Sets by Christopher Acebo. Costumes by Shigeru Yaji. Choreography by Sabrina Peck. Starring Vanessa Aspillaga, Blair Brown, Jill Clayburgh, John Dossett, Concetta Tomei.

Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. Tue-Sat 8pm; Wed & Sat 2pm; Sun 3pm. Running time 1:50. $75. 212-239-6200. Through Jan. 28, 2007. http://www.lct.org/calendar/event_detail.cfm?ID_event=80195535

Photos by Joan Marcus.

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