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The Clean House

THE BASICS: This quirky, bittersweet comedy by Sarah Ruhl is having its WNY premiere with Road Less Traveled Productions. It plays weekends at their Market Arcade theater, through May 12th. Derek Campbell directs an exemplary cast of five. The show runs about two hours with its ten minute intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: “A metaphysical Connecticut”, present day. Matilde, a young woman from Brazil, has wandered aimlessly into the US following the tragic deaths of her parents. Purportedly a housekeeper but with no desire to clean, Matilde is on a quest to dream up The Perfect Joke. She finds herself in the home of two high power MDs, one of whom is having a life-altering affair. Add in a sister (of the female doctor) who has made dust-busting her raison d’etre, and you have the elements of an odd but ultimately absorbing little tale about life, death and the value of laughter.
PLAYERS, PLAY & PRODUCTION: Victoria Perez, who apparently brought this property to the attention of RLTP’s Scott Behrend, is perfect as the lost lamb, Mathilde. She manages to sqeeze some laughs out of an extended story in Portuguese (untranslated), and is even better just gazing pensively at the audience, wracking her brain for that Joke of Jokes. Equally fine is Tina Rausa as her employer, Lane, an attractive, rather brusque, hyperconfident doc whose world falls to pieces with her husband’s abrupt departure. She even manages to be loveable in the late going, padding about in a pink robe, nursing a water bottle. Margaret Massman also scores as Virginia, Lane’s underachieving sis, who carries a torch for Lane’s husband Charles, and who, in her emptiness, has built an entire lifestyle out of defeating dust! Ms Massman does well with her Big Dramatic Moment (which I will not divulge), but is particularly effective interacting with the other female characters. Mary McMahon shows her acting chops in the tough role of Ana, the alluring Other Woman. Donning a blonde wig, she gives the part a properly fetching, sexy-mature quality, and does very well indeed with her Spanish accented English. At once life-radiating and a breast cancer victim, it is Ana’s brave march to the grave, and unusual last request, that finally give some meaning to Mathilde’s seemingly pointless quest. Kudos to Ms McMahon for great work in a “stretch” role. Peter Palmisano rounds out the cast as Lane’s husband and Ana’s lover, Charles. He makes a fine, dapper breast surgeon, exuding a warm, genuine quality that softens the character’s less-than-sterling behavior. He is also funny, especially when doing a pantomime surgery (Ana’s). Playwright Ruhl doesn’t seem to have too much use for Charles, however. We don’t see him until the second act, and somewhere about halfway through it, she packs him off to Alaska on a fool’s errand, so the four women can bond onstage.
THE CLEAN HOUSE is an odd mixture of comedy, tragedy, philosophy and shtick, melding “real” narrative elements with synthetic (ie. projected title cards, a la silent movies) and imagined ones. It grows on you. Director Campbell seems well up to speed on all the play’s various qualities, and makes a pleasing whole cloth out of it, with the help of some top acting talent. A special call-out to Lynne Koscielniak for her spotless, gleaming white, modernist set, and to Katie Menke for some well-matched modernist sound. RLTP again proves that there are pleasures awaiting off the beaten track…

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO:  This means trouble.   A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both.  Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS:  Passable, but no great shakes.  Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic.  Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS:  I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater.  If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS:  Both the production and the play are of high caliber.  If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS:  Truly superb–a rare rating.  Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart.  Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

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