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The Clean House

Christina Rausa, Margaret Massman, and Victoria Perez in "The Clean House."

It can be difficult for Buffalo to become familiar with up-and-coming playwrights, even those who are nationally prominent. Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House opens this week at Road Less Traveled. It is only the second play by the celebrated author to be seen in Buffalo. Her 2009 play In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) was produced at the New Phoenix last season.

Ruhl is hardly a new playwright. Indeed, she is a recipient of the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award for a distinguished American playwright in mid-career. The Clean House, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, goes back to 2004, and is the play that, more than any other, put Ruhl on the theatrical map. This was followed by Demeter in the City (2006) and Dead Man’s Cell Phone (2007), highly admired plays, neither of which has been seen in Buffalo.

In The Clean House, we meet Matilde, a Brazilian cleaning woman who hates cleaning and yearns to be a comedian. She is trying to dream up the funniest joke in the world.

Matilde is employed by Lane, a middle-aged physician who is frustrated by Matilde’s poor cleaning skills. Finally, we meet Lane’s older sister, Virginia, who adores cleaning. Behind Lane’s back, Virginia and Matilde work out an arrangement: Virginia will clean the house while her sister is at work. Lane will be none the wiser and everyone will be happy.

If only life were so simple!

When Matilde and Virginia discover a sexy pair of panties in Lane’s laundry, they immediately suspect that Lane’s husband is having an affair. A touching and sometimes fantastical romantic comedy ensues.

The Clean House debuted at the Yale Rep and was subsequently presented in California, in Chicago, and in Washington, before opening at Lincoln Center in New York. I saw the ravishing Lincoln Center production directed by Bill Rauch, which featured Blair Brown as Lane, Jill Clayburgh as Virginia, John Dossett as Charles, Concetta Tomei as Ana, and Vanessa Aspillaga as Mathilde.

The Road Less Traveled production features Victoria Perez as Matilde with Mary McMahon, Christina Rausa, Peter Palmisano, and Margaret Massman. Derek Campbell directs.

The play is brilliant in the way it weaves comedy and life’s pain; in the manner in which characters are revealed to themselves and to the audience. Finally, its message about life is provocative and mysterious: “I think,” Matilde opines, “heaven is a sea of untranslatable jokes, except everyone is laughing.”

For information about The Clean House, see On the Boards.