In a crisp, clean, contemporary house filled with crisp, clean, contemporary furniture, Matilde, a maid, sweeps vigorously.
Then she pauses, the light turns dreamy and a Latin beat begins. The rhythm sets Matilde’s hips in motion and, abandoning all pretext of work, she gyrates around the room.
Amusingly unreliable, Matilde is but one character in South Coast Repertory’s presentation of “The Clean House” who is about to realize how messy life can be.
Sarah Ruhl’s funny-sad script won the 2004 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for outstanding English-language play by a woman writer. Since that announcement last February, the piece has been presented in New Haven, Conn., and Philadelphia. South Coast Repertory is giving the work its West Coast premiere.
The play seems kissed by success.
So why, despite a production in Costa Mesa that is fine in every particular, does this show fail to coalesce into a satisfying whole?
The story takes place in what the program describes as “a metaphysical Connecticut,” where Matilde, a Brazilian, works as live-in maid for high-powered husband-and-wife doctors. The sharp geometries and chilly colors of their home (designed by Rachel Hauck) are somewhat softened by wood accents and Matilde’s impish personality.
“I don’t like to clean houses,” Matilde (Adriana Sevan) forthrightly admits. She does, however, like to tell jokes. In her native Portuguese. Untranslated.
Jokes, it turns out, were a bond between her recently deceased parents. Yearning for what they shared, Matilde spends her days trying to think up the perfect joke. That is, when she isn’t thinking about her parents so hard that they come dancing through the tall living room windows. Laughing and gazing lovingly at each other, they are the very picture of romance.
Matilde, at least, realizes what’s missing from her life, unlike her briskly efficient employer, Lane (Mary Beth Fisher), who focuses on all the wrong things until she realizes, too late, that she’s lost something as well.
While Lane logs long hours at the hospital, her sister, Virginia (Mary Lou Rosato), secretly visits the house, befriending Matilde and longing to feel useful.
A circle of sisterhood is formed when the radiant Ana (Ivonne Coll) enters their lives. Men -- symbolized by Lane’s husband, Charles (Timothy Landfield) -- are too self-involved to be of much use. So the women rely on one another.
Idealized life crashes up against reality; moral codes are overwhelmed by the heart’s sometimes hurtful impulses; the search for fulfillment is stoked -- and stilled -- by awareness of mortality.
All are compelling issues. Ruhl puts them across in lovely turns of phrase, as when Virginia, a neatness freak, describes the contentment that descends once she has finished cleaning. “The gold draperies are singing a little lullaby to the ottoman,” she says. “The silverware is gently sleeping in its box.” Or, for simple statement, there is Matilde’s observation that “a good joke cleans your insides out.”
The performers balance their portrayals on the knife’s edge between laughter and tears, and director Kate Whoriskey, ever sensitive to the story’s moods, knows exactly when to let the room go quiet, allowing actors and audience to get lost in the moment. Deepening shades of light (by Scott Zielinski) and evocative wisps of music (by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen) signal the many wacky-mysterious shifts into magical realism.
So many strong elements. So why don’t they add up? Could it be because the story’s chief metaphor -- keeping your house in order -- is such an obvious one? Or has some subtle quality eluded these otherwise fine storytellers?
The answer is unknowable, really. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, a show simply doesn’t work. It’s one of those frustrations that, now and again, every theatergoer encounters. When it happens, the best thing to do is to sweep the experience under the rug and open the door to the next adventure.
‘The Clean House’
Where: South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Feb. 27
Price: $27 to $56
Contact: (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.
Mary Beth Fisher...Lane
Mary Lou Rosato...Virginia
Timothy Landfield...A man/ Charles
Ivonne Coll...A woman/Ana
By Sarah Ruhl. Director Kate Whoriskey. Set Rachel Hauck. Costumes Joyce Kim Lee. Lights Scott Zielinski. Composers/sound Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. Choreography Randy Duncan. Stage manager Jamie A. Tucker.