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The Clean House

Sarah Ruhl's "The Clean House" is a rich, ruminative work about the big themes of love, life and death from a young playwright with an original and audacious voice. This funny, tender play has screwy poetry and penetrating wisdom, oddball humor, deadpan soap, operatic arias, fantasy, spirituality and a soaring sense of romance. Most of all, it has tremendous compassion.

Matilde - Vanessa Aspillaga Lane - Blair Brown Virginia - Jill Clayburgh Matilde's Father, Charles - John Dossett Matilde's Mother, Ana - Concetta Tomei

Sarah Ruhl’s “The Clean House” is a rich, ruminative work about the big themes of love, life and death from a young playwright with an original and audacious voice. This funny, tender play has screwy poetry and penetrating wisdom, oddball humor, deadpan soap, operatic arias, fantasy, spirituality and a soaring sense of romance. Most of all, it has tremendous compassion.

It’s about learning to live with our flaws and those of others by forgetting the futile quest to iron out the rough edges and instead embracing the mess. And even at its messiest, when the playwright’s whimsical flourishes threaten to upset the delicate balance, the play is folded all together with a lithe, light touch by Ruhl and director Bill Rauch, who staged the world premiere at Yale Rep in 2004.

A pumped up reputation can be tough on emerging artists. Robbed of the sense of discovery afforded by an untrumpeted talent, critics can respond harshly to even minor disappointment. Without ever having had a major New York production of her work, Ruhl has achieved considerable stature, with literary prizes, a recent MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and well-received stagings at top regional theaters across the country. So it’s both a pleasure and a relief that the arrival of her most celebrated play in Lincoln Center Theater’s constantly surprising production makes it clear what all the fuss is about.

It’s a bold move to open a play with an extended, untranslated dirty joke in Portuguese. But that’s how we first encounter Matilde (Vanessa Aspillaga), standing on a bench in the middle of Christopher Acebo’s austere white-on-white set. It’s soon revealed this earthy, sexy, slightly zaftig woman is live-in housekeeper for busy doctor Lane (Blair Brown). But there’s a problem: Matilde hates to clean.

Still mourning the deaths of her parents (the funniest people in their Brazilian village, her mother literally died laughing and her father committed suicide soon after), 27-year-old Matilde just wants to write jokes. “I’m sorry, but I did not go to medical school to clean my own house,” says anal-retentive Lane as the elements of her spotless living room roll onto the stage.

Enter Lane’s sister, Virginia (Jill Clayburgh). Sweet and pliable where Lane is brittle and closed off, she loves to clean. Creating order out of chaos is her thing. She seeks “a task” to distract her from thoughts of a life that went downhill at age 22. Virginia makes a secret pact with Matilde to clean Lane’s house.

The cozy arrangement is scuppered when Lane comes home early and discovers the switch. She seems as upset about the deception as she is about the newfound knowledge that her husband Charles (John Dossett) has fallen in love with one of his patients.

While he’s handsome and successful, Ana (Concetta Tomei) is not the expected trophy babe; she’s a 67-year-old woman with breast cancer. When Charles performs her mastectomy like an orchestra conductor in a quasi-sexual, quasi-religious ceremony accompanied by heavenly music, it’s a scene of unsettling beauty and sadness. Also seeking neatness, Charles brings Ana by to meet his wife, hoping they might all be friends.

Ruhl has an uncanny ability to anchor even the most flighty romantic cliches — love at first sight, finding a soulmate, going crazy with love — in reality. Yet it’s her fearless steps into Latin-flavored magic realism that make the play so distinctive, even when it veers toward preciousness.

“This is how I imagine my parents,” says Matilde at various times, conjuring an elegant couple (also played by Dossett and Tomei) dancing and laughing and loving. “This is how I imagine my husband and his new wife,” says Lane, summoning another image of passionate harmony, visible also to Matilde. Reality, of course, is never as smooth and uncomplicated as those fantasies, but Ruhl suggests there’s joy and fulfillment to be found even in disarray.

When the minimalism of the first act gives way to the extravagances of the second, the set expands to include the balcony of Ana’s house overlooking the sea. That world and the sterile living room where Lane lies in a depressed funk on the couch begin ingeniously to overlap. Ana and Matilde take bites out of one apple after another searching for the perfect fruit. They toss the rejects off the balcony, which bounce around Lane’s living room like unruly intrusions in her once-ordered life.

It’s her skill at weaving together the jagged edges of conflicting lives — finding common ground between neurotic sisters, rivals for the same man or just people with discordant attitudes to life — that makes Ruhl’s play as rewarding humanistically as it is theatrically.

Just the fact that three leading characters here are vivid, complex women over 50 is unusual enough. What makes the play so satisfying is that behind the quirks, subtle intelligence and clever aphorisms, there’s also deep feeling for the solidarity, practicality and emotional resilience of women. Despite being the most well-meaning and devoted of lovers, Charles drops out of the picture; he’s off on a loopy mission in Alaska, chopping down a yew tree to cure cancer and learning to fly a plane. Yet Ruhl never makes fun of him; she treats all her characters with respect.

Rauch guides the actors to find the peculiar grooves in Ruhl’s writing, the limber ebb and flow between naturalism and fantasy. Tomei is especially fine in a fiery, flamboyant role; Brown deftly balances Lane’s hard surfaces with newly rediscovered vulnerability; and Clayburgh’s Virginia is a lovable nerd with bright flashes of insight.

As the glue that holds it all together, finding humor even in sorrow, Aspillaga is glorious, her mellifluous delivery and physical indolence offset by a sharp-eyed, observant quality and crack timing. The dialogue with which Matilde closes the play is such a refined and arresting piece of emotional distillation it’s perhaps not surprising that Aspillaga is still visibly moved during her bows.

Ruhl is the real deal. Here’s hoping her plays will now reach New York more swiftly.

The Clean House

Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater; 287 seats; $75 top

Production: A Lincoln Center Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Bill Rauch.

Creative: Sets, Christopher Acebo; costumes, Shigeru Yaji; lighting, James F. Ingalls; original music and sound, Andre Pluess; choreography, Sabrina Peck; production stage manager, Roy Harris. Opened Oct. 30, 2006. Reviewed Oct. 26. Running time: 1 HOUR, 55 MIN.

Cast: Matilde - Vanessa Aspillaga Lane - Blair Brown Virginia - Jill Clayburgh Matilde's Father, Charles - John Dossett Matilde's Mother, Ana - Concetta Tomei

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