“I didn’t go to medical school to clean my own house,” says Lane (Mary Beth Fisher), a rigidly organized doctor expressing frustration that her Portuguese maid, Matilde (Adriana Sevan), would rather make up jokes than polish and dust. This offbeat idea is typical of the skewed, original vision of up-and-coming playwright Sarah Ruhl. Ruhl has a gift for creating unpredictable characters, but in SCR’s West Coast premiere staging, overly tame direction reduces the potential hilarity of the first act and dramatic twists in act two. Though operatic in tone, it holds attention without hitting a home run to the heart.
Rachel Hauck’s shrewdly designed set, a sleek modern home with stainless steel lamp and bar, establishes a world where the merits of chaos vs. order can be convincingly debated. Joyce Kim Lee dresses Fisher’s Lane in impeccable white, benefiting the actress’s believable portrait of anal-retentive efficiency. In a subtle way, Ruhl sustains a critical attitude toward Lane, yet the doctor seems perfectly justified in saying to Matilde, after the latter sings a cluster of Bacharach-David songs, “Would you please clean the bathroom when you get a chance?”
Details about Matilde and her mother, who literally died laughing at her father’s jokes, and her father’s subsequent suicide, offer a quirkily creative setup. Despite witty dialogue and Sevan’s lively portrayal, the story doesn’t swing strongly into gear until Lane’s sister Virginia (Mary Lou Rosato), who claims her life has gone downhill since she was 22, shows up and makes a secret pact with Matilde to clean Lane’s house. Rosato has crack comedic timing, and her joyous love of housework (“If I were to die … no one would have to clean my kitchen”) provides the production’s heartiest laughs.
One of Ruhl’s cleverest concepts is making Matilde an aspiring comic, although it becomes frustrating that her jokes are delivered in Portuguese and we have to assume they’re funny without experiencing the humor directly. This comedian/cleaning woman conflict has great possibilities that deserve further exploration.
It’s not until the second half that the play centers firmly on Ruhl’s most engrossing plot element — the affair between Lane’s surgeon husband, Charles (Timothy Landfield), and his lustily sensual patient Ana (Ivonne Coll). Charles brings her home and effusively tells Lane he has found his soulmate, explaining that under Jewish law you’re “obligated to break off with your wife if you find your besherte (soulmate).” Lane responds with understandable bewilderment, “but you’re not Jewish,” in an interchange that shows Ruhl at her eccentric best.
Coll’s force-of-nature character — a woman with breast cancer who can embrace life despite her frail grip on it — is cousin to the life-affirming personality Maureen Stapleton played in Woody Allen’s “Interiors,” and Coll’s Zorba-like expansiveness energizes maudlin sequences. “You glow,” says rejected wife Lane to her warmhearted rival. Lane, it seems, never had that glow; she invited only admiration from her husband after their meeting in medical school, falling in love — symbolically — in anatomy class over a dead body.
Landfield’s Charles expresses winningly rhapsodic ecstasy, although his last scene — dragging in a yew tree from Alaska with cancer-killing ingredients — is misplaced. We don’t quite grasp what Ana sees in Charles, but her relationship with Matilde is movingly conveyed.
If the integration of sentiment and farce sometimes proves elusive, director Kate Whoriskey does capture the magical realism of Ruhl’s fantasy sequences. A lovely dance spotlighting Sevan, Landfield and Coll is one of many graceful interludes conceived by choreographer Randy Duncan. Original music and sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen supply a valuable contribution to the fanciful atmosphere.