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Things Get Messy 

by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & here's a sequence in the current Interplayers production of Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House (through March 15) that embodies the somber hysteria of Ruhl's script. Charles (Gary Pierce) strips down to his bathing trunks, scampering after all the happiness that a mistress on the beach represents. Selena Schopfer (as Charles' proper physician-wife, Lane, forever wearing a white lab coat in her gleaming white-on-white home) crumples onto a sofa, sobbing over her straying husband. A Portuguese woman in black (Silvia Lazo as Matilde, Lane's non-cleaning cleaning woman) paces around, ignoring the coffee table's dust while trying to invent the perfect joke. And Lane's sister Virginia (Anne Selcoe) charges around the living room, wielding a vacuum cleaner against the dirt and grime that has accumulated in her sister's living room and personality. Episodes like this -- full of frantic movement, with characters reacting seriously to others' absurdities while some make fun of others' misfortunes -- live up to the sobering/ridiculous promise of Ruhl's script.





In a serio-comic show with outbreaks of surrealism (Matilde walks into Lane's dreams, Matilde's dead parents somehow merge with Lane's husband and his mistress), actors need to plunge into the freakiness with heads held high. As Charles' newfound love, Ana, Jackie Davis shows the way during some key moments. Lying down like a patient etherized upon a table -- and with Pierce's physician tenderly "sewing up" the woman he loves after an operation -- Davis rises in mid-surgery to recount the course of true love. It's a bizarre episode, but one that's played with dignity and for high stakes. Similarly, the entire cast endows the evening's concluding death with signs that are both dignified and faintly comic.





Yet for too much of the evening, there's the sense that Ruhl's delicate poem is being recited haltingly, unevenly. Often I found myself silently urging actresses just to go for it -- to play the scene to the fullest, not by treating extreme situations with calm seriousness, but with the kind of ranting they demand. Schopfer needs to ratchet up the haughtiness; Selcoe could afford to be more prudish; Lazo should show us that Matilde's playfulness is her way of honoring her parents' memory and trying to reunite with them.





Exaggerated episodes demand exaggerated acting -- and there are opportunities for that when Lane confronts the absurdity of a cleaning woman who won't clean, when Virginia praises her brother-in-law's charisma even as she finds herself fondling his dirty underwear, and when Matilde portrays her parents' goofiness, even in the context of their deaths.





Too often, this cast chooses restraint in the face of the surreal, when what's needed instead is to meet surreal situations head-on. Director Karen Kalensky does just that in a sequence calling for Charles to trudge around the world in search of a medical cure. Kalensky uses just-offstage areas to underscore the absurdity of the quest -- which provides the right set-up for the moment when Pierce, just when he's faced with death, comically concerns himself instead with trivia. When Selcoe scoots around the stage's perimeter as Schopfer tails after her in a sisterly squabble, and when Selcoe abandons her clean-freak inhibitions in an unexpected outburst, Kalensky gets her actors to match absurdity with absurdity.





In addition, she has coached her cleaning lady well. Gesticulating with her gangly arms and wiggling her butt while needlessly dusting an already-been-dusted lamp, Lazo occasionally catches Matilde's free spirit. An opening joke fell flat, probably because it's told in undemonstrative Portuguese. Lazo overdoes the quizzical, scrunched-face bit when confronted with others' strange behaviors, but she excels at floppy-limbed intrusions into others' emotional crises, butting in with "Do you wanna hear a joke?" just when people are taking themselves most seriously.





"If I don't laugh for a week, I feel dirty," says Matilde. We all have a lot of crap encrusted around our souls. The Interplayers version of The Clean House can help with the cleansing process, even if it doesn't deliver all of Ruhl's humor and pathos, even if it only gets some of the punch lines right.

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