We Are Family

Cleanliness--in relationships and genetics--stands at the center of plays from the ATC and Catalina Players

Arizona Theatre Company has just opened The Clean House, written by certified MacArthur genius Sarah Ruhl.

There's a man in the cast, but the play really focuses on a small group of women in a Connecticut gone magical-realist. The catalyst for change is a young Brazilian woman named Matilde, who seems to be a refugee from a Gabriel García Márquez story. She is the third-funniest person in Brazil, with the two funniest people being her late parents. Her mother died laughing at one of her father's jokes, whereupon the bereft father shot himself. Matilde now spends most waking moments trying to devise the perfect joke. She tries out various efforts, all of them untranslatable gags in Portuguese.

Matilde does this instead of what she's being paid for: serving as the live-in maid for a pair of Connecticut doctors. The moment the black-garbed Matilde steps onto Neil Patel's striking white set, you know she doesn't belong. But do any of the other characters, really? Matilde reports to the household's wife-doctor, Lane, a humorless woman who prides herself on keeping everything in her professional and private lives under absolute control. Lane's sister, Virginia, is an unemployed housewife with control issues of her own. In a life otherwise full of mundane disappointment, she fixates on cleanliness. "If you do not clean, how do you know you've made any progress in life?" she asks us, her every cleanliness-obsessed move accompanied by a snippet of Mahler.

Virginia is the most interesting character in The Clean House, despite the abundance of colorful figures around her. She has a vivid, morbid imagination, and she finds ways to persuade herself that her dreary life is perfectly normal. "My husband is like a well-placed couch," she declares. "He takes up the right amount of space. A man should not be too beautiful. Or too good in bed. A man should be functional. Otherwise, you're in trouble."

Well, Lane's husband, Charles, is trouble. All of a sudden, after many years of content marriage, he has found in one of his breast-cancer patients his "soul mate." This is an older Argentine named Ana, an intelligent woman who really doesn't mean to be a homewrecker, but who possesses an irresistible life force even though she is not cancer-free.

Charles spends little time in the picture, so what do we have left? A life force who is dying, a physician who can't heal herself, a maid who can't clean and a repressed woman of natural exuberance. And many quests for perfection: the perfect joke, perfect cleanliness, the perfect apple, perfect love.

It sounds like awfully heavy stuff, but in reality, The Clean House has the feathery lightness, charm, frivolity and underlying melancholy of a Watteau painting.

This said, Ruhl seems to have been traumatized in her youth by some Christopher Durang play, the evidence being this work's extravagant absurdities. One physical location overlaps with another, and one character's figments of imagination spill into another character's reality.

Whether this undercuts the play's emotional honesty or keeps that honesty from becoming overbearing, there's no denying the superb ensemble work of the cast. Alexandra Tavares, as Matilde, has a natural sensuality and gusto that don't descend into some "Girl From Ipanema" stereotype. Felicity La Fortune's Lane is no less compelling for what builds into comic stridency. Rae C. Wright blends firmness and elegance in her portrayal of Ana. Perhaps best of all is Kate Goehring, nerdy-cute as Virginia, who gradually develops from a stooped old-lady figure into a more confident and free spirit. Bernard Burak Sheredy takes the more limited and even more strange role of Charles and turns it into something very human.

Director Jon Jory keeps everyone in almost constant, twirling motion. ATC's The Clean House is a play of lovely little dust motes floating in a sunbeam.

The Catalina Players are offering a work that begins almost as a standard sitcom but quickly turns into something more serious and interesting: Jonathan Tolins' Twilight of the Golds.

No, opera fans, that's not a misprint for Twilight of the Gods, but a play on that epic conclusion to Wagner's mighty Ring des Nibelungen cycle. The Golds are a nice middle-class Jewish family in New York. Son David is a gay opera fanatic in an OK relationship and a not-bad job in the scenery department at the Metropolitan Opera. His current fixation is Wagner's Ring operas, tracing the decline and destruction of the Nordic family of gods; of course, David sees it as a parallel to the disintegration of his own family.

His shallow sister, Suzanne, is pregnant. Her husband, Rob, works in R&D at a high-tech medical company, and subjects the embryo to an experimental genetic test that will ascertain potential defects. The one "defect" returned in the results is that the child will turn out, as the characters say, "like David." What to do to save the child from such an unhappy fate? Perform some hard-core nurturing to help the kid overcome his disadvantages? Or abort the pregnancy?

David sees a potential abortion of this fetus as, in effect, his sister and their parents acting out a desire to eliminate David and his kind from the world. The issue isn't abortion, because everybody in this story is pro-choice; it's targeted abortion, and David feels that he's really the target.

"Why force someone into an unhappy existence?" a character asks. The question would carry more force if David had, for example, Down syndrome. Instead, Twilight of the Golds turns out to be just another play about homophobia in America, a little melodrama about how a gay man becomes alienated from his family. Likening this to the story of Wagner's Götterdâmmerung is just pretentious.

And yet, there's much about this play that is really compelling, and for the most part, the Catalina Players production, well-directed by Bill Fikaris, does it justice. True, the humor in the first scene isn't fully effective, partly because the actors' timing and delivery can be slightly off, and partly because Tolins figures that merely mentioning Ikea is enough to get a laugh. But the acting improves as the dramatic tension rises. Nathan Tucker reads his lines a bit too fast and not always with enough color, but he's good at conveying Rob's resentment. Jason Cabrera is particularly fine as David, an arrogant fellow who yet is full of heart, and he's well-abetted by Renata Rauschen, William F. Hubbard and Shawnie Desmond.

Tolins tries to present the arguments evenhandedly, but ultimately, he is not kind to his characters. Even so, unexpectedly, this production of Twilight of the Golds ends with a musical passage not from Wagner's Twilight of the Gods, but from his Parsifal--music of salvation, not immolation.

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