The Clean House at New Village Arts
Theaters run on such tight schedules, few can extend the run of a hit show. NVA has one — a hit that is, not the run. Their excellent The Clean House must close this Sunday.
If I were a budding young playwright, I would study the greats, of course (Mr. Chekhov most of all), but would pay particular attention to Maria Irene Fornes and Paula Vogel. Sarah Ruhl had the good fortune to study under Vogel (who wrote How I Learned to Drive) at Brown University. Budding young playwrights should also study the works of Sarah Ruhl.
She got the idea for Clean House at a cocktail party. She heard a doctor complain, "I’ve had such a hard month. My cleaning lady from Brazil wouldn’t clean, and I took her to the hospital and got her medicated, and she still wouldn’t clean. And, in the meantime, I’ve been cleaning my house! I didn’t go to medical school to clean house.”
As audition-guru Michael Shurtleff encouraged actors, Ruhl “took the other side.” Instead of the physician, she wondered about the cleaning lady who couldn’t. “Is she clinically depressed, or does she just hate cleaning?”
So Ruhl, awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2006, asks: “how much responsibility do you have, not just literally, for the mess of your own life, and how much do you try and avoid chaos?”
The play, she told an interviewer, “is about cleaning as transcendence, spiritual cleansing.”
It’s also insanely funny, Magritte-mystical (as when apples fall from a balcony by the sea down to Lane’s white-on-white living room in what Ruhl calls “metaphysical Connecticut”), and unsuspecting humans confront jagged absurdities.
One of the best features at New Village Arts: no single feature stands out. Thanks to Claudio Raygoza’s expert direction, scenes are at once spacey, light and airy, rock solid real, and always moving, be it to laughter or tears.
NVA’s stellar production has that quality: a deft blend of disparate elements. It’s useless to predict what will happen next. But when it does, it makes clear sense in hindsight.
At one point Charles, who has left his wife for the woman he operated on, says “There are things, big invisible things that come unannounced – they walk in, and we have to give way.”
In an interview for American Theatre, Ruhl said, “on some level, all my work is asking questions about that invisible stuff.”
San Diego has seen fine stagings of Ruhl’s In the Next Room (the Vibrator Play), at the Rep, and Dead Man’s Cell Phone at Moxie.
We have yet to see Eurydice and Passion Play (hey, I know it’s a three-hour epic, but would someone pul-eeese???)
In the meantime, while we eagerly await the next local staging, there’s time to read her 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater (Faber & Faber, 2014), where she casts her playwright’s eye on the theater/world (“Can One Stage Privacy?”; “The Decline of Big Families and the Decline of Cast Sizes”) and the world at large.