With that background, it's safe to say that the central conceit of The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl is not cracking any new ground. Centered on a Brazilian immigrant maid who is trying to conjure the perfect lethal joke, the play is a collection of unlikely situations stitched together. But thanks to the finest ensemble performance at the Cleveland Play House in some time, the production succeeds in spite of some rather glaring flaws.
Matilde is the young live-in maid hired to scrub and vacuum the home of Lane, a sleek surgeon who lives in an all-white Connecticut house exhibiting the homey warmth of a sanitized surgical suite. Unfortunately, Matilde finds the drudgery of housework depressing, so she often drifts off into reveries about her parents, "the funniest couple in Brazil." Indeed, the parents show up onstage, dreamily dancing and laughing at each other's whispered bon mots.
As luck would have it, however, on one fateful day in the recent past, Matilde's mother died laughing at a joke told by her husband, and he was so shocked he fatally shot himself. We are asked to believe that this tragic death-chortle-plus-suicide launched their daughter on her quixotic quest, but the character of Matilde is not written humorously. You'd think a person so committed to humor would have some hilarious takes on her boss and the chilly, colorless space they share, but that doesn't happen.
Instead, Lane's frowzy sister Virginia shows up, and Matilde -- ever the snappy epigrammatist -- responds with "You mean like the state?" At that rate, her chances of coming up with the ultimate joke seem as remote as Jenna Bush winning the Democratic nomination. But Matilde's in luck: It turns out Virginia loves cleaning house, and she begs the maid to let her take over the domestic duties.
Issues are further complicated when Lane learns that her husband Charles, also a surgeon, has run off with his mastectomy patient, Ana, who's older than he is. Meanwhile, Virginia happily starts doing her sister's laundry as Matilde furrows her brow in deep contemplation of advanced theoretical gagology.
The metareality of these situations is accented by large stage directions that are projected above the set: "Virginia takes stock of her sister's dust." "Virginia has a deep impulse to order the universe." In addition, the playwright nudges the space-time continuum to comic effect. When Lane imagines Charles and Ana together and they appear onstage, Matilde enters and asks, "Who's that?" At another time, Matilde and Ana are throwing apples off a balcony somewhere in the country, and they land with a thud in Lane's living room, disturbing her nap.
For all the staging imagination and some genuinely amusing lines (Matilde perceptively describes the perfect joke as "somewhere between an angel and a fart"), the whole premise seems a bit too far-fetched. But a splendid cast under the skillful direction of Davis McCallum keeps the proceedings light and, for the most part, deliciously diverting.
Patricia Hodges is ideal as the repressed Lane, and she's particularly hilarious in the play's best scene, a confrontation in her living room with Charles and his new honey. Smoldering with incomprehension and anger, Hodges' stony expressions are priceless -- especially when Charles cites some arcane Jewish law to excuse his infidelity. Her riposte: "You're not even Jewish!" As Ana, Janis Dardaris oozes sexiness, even when her cancer returns in the second act; but she is lovable enough so that you can see why Lane would eventually warm to her.
Ursula Cataan is fresh and appealing as Matilde, although the script never allows her to show her character's chops as a supposed jokemeister. Beth Dixon, looking like Jill Clayburgh's second cousin, is charming as the ditzy, cleaning-obsessed Virginia, and Terry Layman hits all the right notes as Charles, a man overwhelmed with true love later in life.
But the production's biggest errors pile up at the end. Without giving anything away, the natural conclusion of the story -- a moment which is not played for its full impact, either comically or dramatically -- is followed by a couple of extraneous scenes. As is true from the very start (when Matilde tells an evidently ribald joke in her native tongue), some of the most important gags in this piece just don't translate.