Sexual ambiguity, spiritual awakening and identity crisis within a combustible Latino family dominate Edwin Sanchez’s “Clean.” Swift exposition and a volatile first act reveal some titillating information, which seemingly is leading toward violence and tragedy, but the second act snails toward unexpected and unlikely romantic fulfillment.
In this complicated family saga, Kiko (Victor Argo), the dictatorial patriarch, has married three times to three sisters. His first wife, the mother of Junior (Nelson Vasquez), is deceased. The second wife, and mother of Gustavito (Victor Anthony), walked out on Kiko and the boys. The third wife, Mercy (Paula Pizzi), is a talented seamstress who married Kiko to help raise the family, but it’s a hands-off relationship, and she arms herself with a hammer for protection when hubby gets drunk and aggressive.
Gustavito is a devout altar boy (aging from 10 to 18 during the course of the play), whose confessions lead to a strong attachment with the parish priest (Rod McLachlan). Much to the inevitable wrath of Kiko and the fury of Gustavito’s older brother, the relationship becomes intimate. Enter Norry (Ron Butler), a flamboyant drag queen who enlists Mercy to create a dazzling show gown. Not only does Norry escort Gustavito to a gay club for initiation, but grows so fond of his seamstress that he begins to doubt his own sexuality.
Junior is so angry that his younger brother might be gay that he kicks in the windows of the priest’s car, cutting his foot in the process, only to be comforted by Norry, who croons “I’m Thru With Love” in his new red gown. A fervent rendering of the old ballad entices Junior, posing a suggestion that he too just might want to be a cross-dresser.
If all of this stretches the boundaries of credibility, one must credit the actors and their aggressive performances for holding audience interest. In particular, Butler gives the play its shape and too-infrequent humor as the doubting transvestite who decides to try it straight. Pizzi adds a sensitive study of the sexually repressed housewife who is looking for love in the most dubious places.
Despite a bland, preachy second act, Sanchez manages to invest the strange milieu with some boldly colorful dialogue, and Neil Pepe has staged it with a firm hand. Todd Rosenthal’s spare double-tiered stage explores tenement, church, alleys and fire escapes, all accented by a well-defined lighting design.