Weirder People's Houses

Grey Gardens proves that bad housekeeping can make good theater

Where Grey Gardens' imagination thrives on fact, Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House offers wall-to-wall factitiousness, taking up what used to be called "the servant problem" in a sappy, meandering, campy-romantic fashion that alternates the dully predictable with the downright embarrassing. Ruhl has a certain novice talent, as a few patches of incisive monologue midway through the draggy two-act piece convey, but our youth-hungry, flesh-eating culture has canonized way too early (New York Times raves, a MacArthur "genius" grant), and she will now be stuck forever with the burden of outrageously unfulfillable expectations. And all because, like an obedient student, she made sure her play conformed to academia's current fashion in aesthetic expectations: non-narrative, anti-psychological, dealing with third-world immigrants but evading all sense of victimhood, reality-based but disrupted by the surreal, and all the other tired devices by which the commissars of dramaturgy now teach budding playwrights to shirk their responsibilities.

A married couple, both workaholic MDs, have a Brazilian maid who hates cleaning. In reality this would lead to simple dismissal, but, no, this maid has to be a metaphysical figure, preoccupied with finding and telling the perfect joke. The wife's unhappily married, childless sister pitches in to clean for the jokesmith. From this unconvincing start, the work dribbles into pointlessness and lame movie-style gags about trying to get a yew tree on a plane. Bill Rauch's production compounds the emptiness by pushing some very good actors—Blair Brown, Jill Clayburgh, John Dossett, Concetta Tomei—into an italicized, self-conscious tone, presumably so the funding organizations will know it's a comedy; Vanessa Aspillaga's performance as the maid is all italics. It's hardly her fault, Ruhl having given neither the maid, her situation, nor the house she doesn't clean any reality an audience might care about.

Mirror mirror: Christine Ebersole as Little Edie in Grey Gardens
photo: Joan Marcus
Mirror mirror: Christine Ebersole as Little Edie in Grey Gardens

Details

Grey Gardens
by Doug Wright, Michael Korie, and Scott Frankel
Walter Kerr Theatre
218 West 48th Street
212-239-6200

The Clean House
By Sarah Ruhl
Mitzi E.Newhouse Theater
Lincoln Center
150 West 65th Street
212-239-6200

The Wild Duck
By Henrik Ibsen
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
718-636-4100
(Closed)

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Ibsen's Wild Duck, on view all too briefly at BAM in a production by Norway's National Theatre, might provide Ruhl a useful model for study. Housekeeping is somewhat surreal here too, since the Ekdal family has a fake nature preserve in its back room, and Ibsen's play too shifts its preoccupation from masters to underlings and back. But his skill at weaving issues, images, and realities together was never stronger, and Eirik Stubo's production, stripping away many of the play's 19th-century decorative whorls, laid bare that incisiveness, using a 1950s setting and Danish-moderne furniture to underscore its clarity. (This is surely the only production ever of The Wild Duck in which Hjalmar serenaded his family by playing "Love Me Tender" on the recorder.) Agot Sendstad's Gina was superb, Gard Eidsvold's Hjalmar and Kim Haugen's Relling excellent. BAM, kindly arrange a return visit.

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