Instinct and affection for magical realism propel Sara Ruhl’s entertaining and fanciful play “The Clean House,” a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. It revolves around the influence that a Brazilian maid (who has no interest in or intention to do her housework) has on her employers, married physicians Lane (Blair Brown) and Charles (John Dossett). That Matilde (Vanessa Aspillaga) makes obvious her dislike for housecleaning is funny and astonishing enough, but even more outrageous is that she prefers to stand around and tell jokes. Her mission in life, as she explains it, is to find the perfect joke in honor of her parents, jokesters non pareil.
It seems that it was a joke, told by Matilde’s father, that killed her ailing mother, whom she remembers having died laughing. Lane has a sister, Virginia (Jill Clayburgh), a sweet but slightly dotty soul who is cleaning obsessed and secretly does Matilde’s work for her. It is no joke that Lane and Charles are heading for a divorce when Charles announces that he has fallen in love with Ana (Concetta Tomei), his breast cancer patient, whom he brings home to meet his wife with the hope they will be friends.
The play begins with a funny monologue, actually a very long joke, spoken in Portuguese, by Matilde, but with enough funny body language that the joke’s literal meaning quickly becomes inconsequential. More consequential is the way that these characters are put into an orbit of interconnecting relationships. Under Bill Rauch’s stylistically empathetic direction, the play is experienced through a loopy but lyrical lens. Similarly, the performances also exist happily within the framework of a skewed reality.
The sexily plump Aspillaga, memorable in the Broadway production of “Anna in the Tropics,” is wonderful as the maid who, though in mourning since her mother’s death, remains the irrepressible catalyst for the play’s funniest situations. Jill Clayburgh, who more than held her own in the recent otherwise disappointing “A Naked Girl on the Appian Way” and “Barefoot in the Park,” is delightful and radiant as Virginia, the sister with a commitment to creating order out of chaos ever since her life began going downhill somewhere around the age of 22 — that is until she finally rebels.
Blair Brown, winner of the Tony for “Copenhagen,” is all bristles as Lane, who discovers with dismay that Virginia has been doing Matilde’s work, and that her husband, Charles, is anxious for her to accept his decision to leave her for Ana, his ascribed “soul mate.” Dossett’s warm and ingratiating manner makes it easy to accept his passion for Ana, despite the fact that she is considerably older. The scene in which he performs the mastectomy is highly stylized and very moving.
Concetta Tomei’s grace and elegance, as Ana, makes it easy to accept her as the woman who steals Charles’s heart. It should be noted that Dossett and Tomei also double as Matilde’s parents, whose love is expressed through their dancing and laughing together.
The play moves toward its tender resolve as designer Christopher Acebo’s handsomely austere living room setting also accommodates the balcony of the home overlooking the sea, where Charles and the ill-fated Ana choose to live. The metaphysical presence of Matilde’s parents; the metaphoric use of apples that are tossed into the living room by Matilde and Ana in their search for the perfect one; and even the motivation that prompts Charles to go off on an absurdist trek to Alaska to find and bring back a tree to cure cancer, are indulged with a persuasive credence.
What exactly it is that Ruhl is conjuring up escapes me. But those willing to go along with her vision of the unpredictable side of love, the silly side of life, and the sentimental side of death, will have a fine time. Ruhl, whose work has apparently been lauded at many of our regional theaters, but is virtually unknown in New York, earned a recent MacArthur Foundation Fellowship “genius grant.” It is safe to say, based on this lovely production of “The Clean House,” that Ruhl is a uniquely creative imaginative dramatist. ***
“The Clean House,” through Sunday, December 17, with a possible extension, Mitzi Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65th Street. $70. 212-239-6200.