Coming clean: <i>Sarah Ruh's 'A Clean House' at once lively, funny and flawed</i>

"A Clean House," currently playing at ACT Theatre, is by far the most popular work by Sarah Ruhl, who is currently one of the hottest playwrights in the country. Ruhl is young - celebrating her 33rd birthday this year - yet already she has had seven plays produced, won prestigious awards and been the recipient of a MacArthur genius grant that lauds her vivid and adventurous works and praises her for juxtaposing "mundane aspects of daily life with mythic themes."

Be that as it may, I found "The Clean House" to be a flawed play. Its two acts seem badly woven together. The second act degenerates into mayhem even as it addresses the most poignant issues of love and death. It's as if it got away from Ruhl, and she had trouble pulling it back under her control. Because the play is all about orderliness - in one's life, in one's surroundings - we can assume that Ruhl creates the contrast between the tidy first act and the messy second act deliberately to reinforce the concept that life is at its best fully experienced in all its eccentricities. I don't think she quite succeeds.

There are, however, many who laud the work and accept the turmoil of the second act. They view it as a marvelous example of magical realism. If that's a literary form you love, you'll adore this play. And, even for those of us who prefer our text a bit more cohesive, there's much about this play to like. It's filled with hilarious, heartrending, imaginative and even poetic moments, and these assets are intensified by ACT's good cast and production values.

The central character is Matilde, a Brazilian woman hired to clean the home of Lane, a highly organized, highly successful doctor who has everything under control in her life. The problem is that Matilde hates to clean. She'd rather tell jokes. Enter Virginia, the doctor's less successful sister, who has a cleaning fetish. Virginia is more than happy to take over Matilde's duties as long as they keep it a secret from sister Lane. They do that until everyone realizes that Lane's doctor husband is having an affair. In the emotional turmoil Lane also finds out about the housecleaning ruse. She's furious. She's been duped. Her controlled world has exploded. Matilde is fired. Virginia is banished.

In comes the husband with his new love, his Ana, an older woman who happens to be dying but who embraces life wholeheartedly. Be it messy, be it ordered, she rejoices in life and wants to meet Lane and make amends for taking her husband, though it couldn't be helped: she's his soulmate. By the end of the play, Lane has loosened up, become a more compassionate and less controlling person. Virginia abandons her compulsion to clean and totally trashes the set. And Matilde ... well, Matilde has created the perfect joke, a joke so good it literally causes Ana to die laughing.

This all takes place in a marvelous, ultramodern white room straight out of Architectural Digest. White pot with white orchids on white bench next to white couch. Even the books and candles are white. Yet scenic designer Matthew Smucker has also managed to provide us with a contrasting atmosphere. On a narrow balcony that floats above the set, a more colorful view of life fades in and out as Matilde dreams about her dead parents and Ana holds court.

Christine Calfas as Matilde is incandescent. Every turn of her head, lift of her chin, every kick of a leg, sashay of her buttocks make her more endearing. The script calls for her to recite her jokes in Portuguese, which she does with amazing adeptness, at least to the ears of one who doesn't speak that language. Of course, her hand gestures provide emphases that we all can understand. When she speaks English, the lilt and accent are just right. She was marvelous last year, too, when she appeared as a sari-clad guide to the afterlife in ACT's production of "Miss Witherspoon." Seattle would do well to see more of her.

Suzanne Bouchard as Lane and Anne Allgood as Virginia provide wonderful, contrasting sisters. Lane is all cold, controlled elegance. Dressed in a chic white pants suit, she's as sterile as is her vision of life. Neurotic Virginia in her frumpy brown dress is as well suited to the vacuum and the ironing board as she is to her unfulfilled life. Allen Fitzpatrick and Priscilla Hake Lauris round out the cast with able performances. Because Ana is Brazilian, Lauris too must have a Portuguese accent, and she, too, does it with finesse. I'm sure that some credit must be given to dialect coach Judith Shahn for the success of both Portuguese-speaking actresses.

Except for a balletic pantomime in which Lane's husband Charles performs simultaneously a mastectomy on and a love scene with Ana, director Allison Narver is in total control of the script. For me, that scene was a little too much realism and too little magic. It's good, however, to see Narver in the director's chair again. We all mourn the sad and sudden demise of the Empty Space, where she was artistic director.

This is a quirky, highly imaginative, imperfect play and ACT's production is probably as good as it gets. Ruhl hasn't delivered all she set out to do here, and she hasn't succeeded in tying all the strands into a cohesive whole, but she's creative and gifted. We can expect truly great work from her in the future.

'A Clean House'
ACT Theatre, 700 Union St. Tuesdays-Sundays through April 29. Tickets: $10-$54, 292-7676 or

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