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Cleaning House

Michael Feingold is a wonderful, witty, and cantankerous coot, and his work makes me think and smile in equal measure. He is one of the theater critics at our flagship paper, the Village Voice, so I say this both out of genuine admiration and a certain, panicky sense of self-preservation. One day, I may run into him at a cocktail party, and when I do, he will probably say something like this: "Aren't you the guy who called my review of The Clean House boorish, wrong-headed and dumb?" And so here I lavish praise upon him — for his broad and deep learning, for his marvelous ability to turn a phrase, for his high standards, for his incisive thinking about all kinds of shit that blows by most folks, myself included — because, when he says, "And furthermore, didn't you say I was grumpy and needed to pull my thumb out of my ass?" I want him to be smiling.

I read Feingold's review of the Lincoln Center's production of The Clean House after seeing the play myself at Caldwell and found the review boorish, wrong-headed, and dumb. Feingold is occasionally grumpy and might benefit from pulling his thumb out of his ass. That goes for the cretin over at the New Yorker too — that Hilton Als character. They both loathed The Clean House. They smeared it with that rare kind of nastiness that only true poets, throttled up to fifth gear and speed-hating their way down the page, can ever hope to achieve.

I'm telling you this because it's rare that we in SoFla get to see a play, hot off a first run in New York, that has divided the critics and the masses quite so evenly as The Clean House. Sarah Ruhl, the play's youthful author (32, founder of a literary magazine, new mother, and recent recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Grant — and, after The Clean House, a Pulitzer finalist), has been lavishly celebrated in the pages of the New York Times and Variety ("a poet with the gift of gag"), even while being subjected to the gruesome slander previously discussed ("alternates the dully predictable with the downright embarrassing," Feingold said). Arguments like this one are a big part of what's fun about new art, and we people, living at the tip of America's least favorite appendage, hardly ever get to join in. Now we can, and we should.

As a play, The Clean House is one of the most inoffensive things ever to prance across Caldwell's stage, and for a theater whose season has included Steel Magnolias and an Elvis retrospective, that's saying something. Though the plot is straightforward, the narrative structure reminded me of Salvador Plascencia's People of Paper; others have compared it to Plascencia's magical realism forebears. There are bits of the story related to the audience directly, via monologue, with the rest being enacted straight. The story concerns Charles and Lane (Dennis Creaghan and Pat Nesbit), who are a husband-and-wife team of doctors, and Matilde (Karina Barros), their maid. Matilde despises cleaning. She'd rather be a comedian. Her parents, she tells us, were the funniest people in all of Brazil, and so fixated is she on the nature of humor, so certain of its status as the single, over-arching priority in her own life and the collective life of the world, that it's impossible not to take her claim seriously.

Charles has fallen in love with an older woman named Ana (Harriet Oser), to whom he's recently given a mastectomy. "The difference between uninspired medicine and inspired medicine is love," he says. Lane learns this at more or less the same moment she discovers that her sister, Virginia (Cary Anne Spear), has taken over Matilde's cleaning duties on the sly. Virginia loves cleaning ("If you do not clean, how do you know if you've made any progress in life?"), Charles loves Ana ("I have found my bashert!" — no, he's not Jewish), and Lane loves nothing. She merely wants to go to the hospital, heal anonymous people, come home to her clean, anonymous house, chat with her husband, and feel good herself.

Obviously, that doesn't work. Her husband is running off with an older woman, her maid refuses to clean, and her sister is a nutbag. We get Ruhl's quirky version of a resolution when Ana's cancer returns and Charles races to Alaska to find a yew tree in the hopes that it will cure her. The Pacific yew has uses in chemo, whereas the more famous English yew has long been a choice method of suicide in literature, many heroes finding its poisoned sap preferable to death at the hands of a hated enemy. This double connotation is not accidental, as audiences will see.

Ana will not go to a hospital, so Lane tends to her privately, ultimately allowing her to move in. By the time this happens, her house is no longer clean. Laundry, paper, dirt, and half-eaten apples cover the floor. The message isn't subtle: To become spiritually clean, you must get your hands dirty, and you must be able to laugh about it. That's about as deep as The Clean House gets, and thank God. With Kurt Vonnegut dead, the arts will need some folks who can say simple things in interesting ways.

The Clean House is unavoidably "simple," but maybe it wasn't so "interesting" when performed at Lincoln Center. Regrettably, Pat Nesbit, et al. can be in only one place at a time. Maybe if Michael Feingold and Hilton Als had seen the way these actors work the material, and the way Michael Hall has milked it for every ounce of humanity and humor it possesses, they wouldn't have groused so. Granted, the whole thing plays up stereotypes quite a bit: Virginia and Lane, the WASPy wives, are hopelessly repressed, while Matilde and Ana, both Latinas, are full of life and homespun folksy wisdom. Whether that bugs you or not probably depends on whether you're the sort of person who thinks art exists to serve a political agenda or that it exists to serve actual people. If you're in the latter camp, this has been a very dark few months, and The Clean House might be just the medicine you need.

Folks who care about such things should note that this will be Caldwell's final production at its current home, where the company has been churning out theater — sometimes sublime, sometimes schlocky, sometimes sublimely schlocky — for 17 years with skill, passion, and verve. The theater's new facility, just a little distance away, will open its doors in December. If The Clean House is a sign of things to come, winter cannot come soon enough.

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Brandon K. Thorp