Washington is on a roll — and we’re not talking baseball.
In the space of a single week, two astounding new talents have arrived on the theater scene. First, Studio Theatre introduced audiences to playwright Rolin Jones and his harrowing, brainiac comedy, “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow.” Now, Woolly Mammoth has given us Sarah Ruhl and her sad yet strangely uplifting and funny, play “The Clean House,” which will change how you view dusting and Windex forever.
Blending elements of magic realism, melodrama and absurdist comedy, Miss Ruhl uses housecleaning as a metaphor for how people alienate themselves from their own lives — their dust, their dirt.
The play gets off to a roaring start with this rant from Lane (Naomi Jacobson), an overtaxed surgeon: “It has been a hard month. My cleaning lady — from Brazil — decided that she was depressed one day and stopped cleaning my house. I was like, ‘Clean my house.’ And she wouldn’t.”
Lane has Matilde (Guenia Lemos) medicated, but still she won’t pick up a dust rag. Turns out, Matilde hates to clean. She would rather dream up jokes (which she animatedly relates in Portuguese) in her quest for the ultimate yuk, much like the one her father told to her mother, who died laughing. The perfect joke, she reasons, lies somewhere between an angel and a flatulence episode.
On the other hand, Lane’s sister Virginia (Sarah Marshall), loves to clean. A suburban nutcase whose beige separates and practical bobbed hair belie a woman who has slowly, quietly become unwound, Virginia takes a romantic view of dusting and mopping, seeing order as a way to get her “self” back.
Virginia also finds spiritual meaning in cleaning. To her, housecleaning is not a chore people should palm off on someone else when their economic status rises to a certain level. It is a ritual, a way you take care of yourself and others, a way to make your space sacred and immaculate.
Virginia starts secretly cleaning her sister’s house, and she and Matilde forge a chatty friendship, filling their days with laughter, jokes and expertly folded laundry. The tidy arrangement falls apart, however, when Lane’s husband Charles (Mitchell Hebert) leaves her for one of his patients, the magical and glowing Ana (Franca Barchiesi).
Up to this point, “A Clean House” is elegantly neutral, with the actors wearing understated beige, white and black outfits by costume designer Anne Kennedy and Narelle Sissons’ set, an expensive expanse of white with tasteful touches of silver. A towering wall of sheer white curtains flanks the back of the set, suggesting wealth but also the generic coldness of hospital curtains.
Ana arrives as a welcome burst of brightness, in clothes the color of the sea and blooming flowers. She also brings in assorted messes, both physical and emotional. Lane’s spare living room starts becoming littered with the detritus of a real, marvelously disheveled life — discarded apples the color of jewels, mismatched chairs, a fighting fish in a bowl.
“The Clean House” traffics in cliches, especially the one where ethnic people show uptight WASPs how to live, laugh, love. This sentimental notion may stick briefly in your craw, but Miss Ruhl circumvents the schmaltz with writing that is crisp, strident and bitingly funny. Her shifts between the comic and dramatic are clean, never veering into pathos. She keeps the play on course with straightforward dialogue, which the characters speak with bracing directness.
Director Rebecca Bayla Taichman takes the play’s squared-off neatness to heart, with a staging that is simple yet capable of veering off into flights of fancy where needed. The actors are similarly dedicated to the play’s pristine mandates, their roles honed to the point where they seem profoundly intimate with what makes their characters tick.
Miss Marshall is nothing short of amazing as the muted oddball Virginia, whose constricted body and facial tics are short stories in themselves. As her successful sister, Miss Jacobson displays preening self-confidence that is a risky choice because it initially makes her so unlikable, but then she lets us in on the uncertainties and pain of someone seemingly so perfect. Both actresses also have the shorthand of true sisters down pat.
Miss Barchiesi is a tribute to the seductive power of someone well over the age of 21 who effortlessly enchants everyone she meets, and Miss Lemos exudes the frisky, rubbery demeanor of a born comedian. In the difficult task of being the only male on a stage full of vibrant women, Mr. Hebert more than holds his own, portraying Charles as a man clumsily, passionately reborn through his time with Ana.
In “The Clean House,” Ana and Matilde bring everyone back to life — to dirt and dirty jokes, to laughter that is both life-giving and taking. In the process, both Lane and Virginia break out of the hermetic shells they’ve built for themselves over the years. By getting a little muddy, they come clean, so to speak.
WHAT:”The Clean House” by Sarah Ruhl
WHERE: Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D Street, NW
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Aug. 14
TICKETS: $30 to $48
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS