Monday, March 3, 2008
Who cares about cancer when you've got Häagen-Dazs? Paula Plum, Nancy Carroll, Bobbie Steinbach, and Cristi Miles get their groove back in The Clean House.
There's a kind of preternatural sparkle to Sarah Ruhl's widely-produced (and praised) The Clean House, now in a smart, shiny new production at the New Rep. The play is all but spotless; it practically gleams, like some finely-tuned theatrical machine, with a display of craft unusual in a young playwright. The only problem with this dramatic vehicle is that it's running on empty; there's no real pain in its "tragedy," and its "comedy" is superficial and derivative: it's actually hard to think of a single character or situation in The Clean House that isn't second-hand. Indeed Ruhl's great achievement is the seamless integration of so many received cultural touchstones into a convincing simulacrum of a real play.
I can already hear the howls of execration: who wants reality (and no, I don't mean realism) when a dramatic theme park is so much more fun? In truth, I believe I may be the only one who still cares about this particular point - I sometimes see myself as a kind of pale, word-processing Will Smith, wandering an evacuated cultural landscape full of latte-sucking zombies. But then, this is my blog - so here goes nothing -
Ruhl strikes me as primarily interesting because she exemplifies (indeed, perhaps encapsulates) a trend I see more and more in postmodern culture - call it the dj-ification of the arts. Like Paul Thomas Anderson (whose There Will Be Blood I critiqued below), she seems driven not by inner ghosts, or visions, or demons, but by a compulsion to better manage the culture she was born into. The Clean House, for instance, is more like a perfect mix tape than a play. What's weird is that I'm not sure Ruhl is aware she's a kind of multi-cultural drama jockey, spinning a sleek mix of high-end chick lit and arthouse hits. Does she realize she borrowed her joke-so-funny-it-kills from Monty Python, her dirt-obliterating-a-white-living-room from Tommy, her adulterous-apples-popping-up-in-other-people's-lives from John Updike, her medical horrors from John Irving, her chicks-bonding-over-chocolate from some Susan Sarandon movie, and her saucy Latin maid from too many 70s "foreign films" to count? Somehow I actually think she imagines this is all her own stuff. Which is a little scary.
What's scarier is the critics seem only too happy to cooperate with her delusions. To them, Ruhl rules. And in a way, I understand why: she's a dazzling technician. The beats all land precisely where they should, there's a clever, constant shift between "comedy" and "tragedy," and weirdest of all, Ruhl conjures truly original stage metaphors - perhaps the best of these was her way of leaving the jokes from her Portuguese maid untranslated, while offering us projected explanations of unspoken interactions between her characters (life is like an untranslated joke - get it? - so you may as well laugh as cry). The trouble is not her form, but her content - she's like half of the greatest writing partnership ever.
Still, if you've been in a coma for the last quarter century, you'll think The Clean House is utterly amazing and "true," and it's certainly being served up immaculately by the New Rep. Perhaps, as Louise Kennedy (who's something of an expert on this play) opines, this version gives the show's undergraduate "tragedy" short shrift. But then director Rick Lombardo is always superb at articulating comedy, and here he's working with a dream trio of local comediennes, so everyone is playing to their strong suit. Nancy Carroll once again proves she can do more with less than anyone else in Boston - here she brings down the house with little more than the flicker of an eyelid. And Bobbie Steinbach's warm, expansive brassiness is the perfect complement to her sorrowful, self-aware strings, while Paula Plum manages to find fresh, personal spins to such clichéd tropes as laughing-through-your-tears (or is it crying-through-your-chuckles?). As the sexy Latina (another character direct from central casting), Cristi Miles isn't really to the comic manner born, but she's energetic and appealing, and certainly earns her laughs with a fully realized performance. Ditto Will Lyman, who's almost believable as the husband who finds his soulmate in one of his patients - okay, the role is a certain kind of female fantasy, but Lyman is light on his feet and knows precisely when to let the funny girls take over. Kudos also to the production team - Cristina Todesco's set is perhaps more porn-star mansion than yuppie showplace, but it still looks great, and Jamie Whoolery's evocative projections subtly re-inforce the sense we're actually watching a movie we've seen before.
As for the "plot" - here's the set-up: uptight control-freak, neurotic sister, soulful, sexy maid, free spirit, errant husband, perfect living room. Can't you write the rest yourself? Feel free to throw some cancer and a "curve ball" in there to make it look original. Sure, it won't be as polished as The Clean House. But then few real plays are.