The Banyan Theater Company finds the essential role of disorder in The Clean House.
By Kay Kipling
What a treat it is, in the dog days of August, to emerge from a theater feeling, well, sort of clean and perhaps even a little exhilarated. That’s “clean” as in The Clean House, the Banyan Theater Company’s final production of the season, now onstage at the Cook Theatre at the FSU/Asolo Center for the Performing Arts.
Sarah Ruhl’s play, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago, walks a fine line; it’s quirky and unconventional, but not just for the sake of being so, and its comedy is, as comedy should be, rooted in real and basic human emotions. Not many playwrights could pull this off; Ruhl, whose work is expertly directed here by Douglas Jones, can.
The play first introduces us to Mathilde (Karina Barros), a young Brazilian woman who works as the cleaning lady for a 50-ish doctor, Lane (Seva Anthony). Mathilde, whose parents were the funniest people in Brazil, is much more interested in coming up with the perfect joke than she is in cleaning anyone’s home, and that causes some tension between her and the uptight Lane. Fortunately, Lane’s sister, Virginia (Geraldine Librandi), happens to be a woman for whom cleaning is the essence of life, and she offers to do Mathilde’s dirty work for her. Unfortunately, Lane’s doctor husband, Charles (Robert Herrle), happens to fall in love with a patient (Ann Morrison), who, to add insult to injury, is 67 years old.
Karina Barros, Seva Anthony, Geraldine Librandi, Ann Morrison and Robert Herrle in the Banyan’s The Clean House.
If this sounds like a setup for some easy jokes, well, it is and it isn’t. As with any joke, it’s all in the way you tell it. And Ruhl’s way of telling it is tinged with fantastic, magical elements that raise it out of the ordinary. “This is not a foreign film,” Lane fumes at one point to her husband, distraught at his sudden achingly romantic ways. But The Clean House is like a foreign film at times, and like a South American telenovela, too. And like an opera, especially in the scene where Virginia, to the strains of an aria, breaks out and begins to make dirty and untidy the antiseptic white world of Lane’s house.
That set, by James A. Florek, conveys the right atmosphere for these characters; it includes a balcony from which Ana and Mathilde at one time toss apples that end up in Lane’s living room. Florek’s lighting also works to create a sense of non-reality when called for.
Karina Barros is a find as Mathilde; she’s irresistibly and authentically Brazilian. She works naturally with both Morrison and Librandi, the latter especially effective on both the comic and more dramatic levels. Herrle is appealing as Charles, whose formerly well-ordered world turns blissfully upside down. But Anthony could use more variation in her performance as Lane; she’s too stiff and strident most of the time, making her later scenes not as believable as they should be.
That’s not a fatal problem here by any means. Overall, The Clean House is a welcome and thoughtful piece of theater. It continues through Aug. 24; call 552-1032 or go to banyantheatercompany.com.