SECRET ORDER: Wherein a cancer-conquering hayseed gets backed into a dark ethical corner.
There are doctors in the house at both Trinity Repertory Company and Merrimack Repertory Theatre. In Sarah Ruhl’s gorgeously lunatic swirl of magical realism, The Clean House (at Trinity through June 3), the physicians are a married couple whose pristine world is knocked into compassionate chaos first by a Brazilian domestic depressed by her chores and then by an unexpected collision of love and fate. In Bob Clyman’s Secret Order (at MRT through May 20), the doctors are mouthpieces for an exploration of the moral and monetary pressures that accompany medical research. Although Ruhl’s work is a wild and poignant fantasia, it is more believable than Clyman’s neatly constructed issue play, whose two-dimensional characters I didn’t buy for a minute.
A 2005 Pulitzer finalist and 2004 Susan Smith Blackburn Award winner, The Clean House announces its audacity from the get-go, as the play opens with the Brazilian maid telling an involved, obviously sexy joke in Portuguese. Although the production employs projected placards, including the announcement that “a woman tells a long joke in Portuguese,” there is no translation. Ruhl is a poet as well as a dramatist, and her interest in language extends beyond literal usage to embrace rhythm and flavor. Beyond that, this striking new voice for the American stage seems to say that heaven and earth, if you open your arms, heart, and ears to them, require less translation than you think.
Matilde, the immigrant comedienne, is stuck in “metaphysical Connecticut,” where she’s taken a job cleaning for a couple of preoccupied doctors, Charles and Lane. Lane wants her chrome-and-white homefront to be as pristine as an operating chamber but says, “I did not go to medical school to clean my own house.” Trouble is, cleaning makes Matilde “sad.” The daughter of two wildly funny Brazilians, she popped into the world laughing; her mother died convulsed at a joke told by her father, who promptly committed suicide; and her own quest is to dream up “the perfect joke,” not to bust dust. The good news is that Lane’s sister, Virginia, is accustomed to filling the empty corners of her life by emptying the corners of her house of dirt, and she’d be glad to extend the mission to Lane’s house. Lane uncovers the deception just as Charles leaves her, after falling in love at first sight with a 67-year-old woman, the Argentine-born Ana, on whom he performs a mastectomy. After that, things, including Lane’s once antiseptic house, get mighty messy, with love and death, clutter and compassion, not to mention banana peels fit to send one sailing across the River Styx, strewn all over the place.
The Clean House debuted at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2004, was produced at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2006, and is popping up now in regional theaters all over the place. (It will be presented at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater this summer and at New Repertory Theatre next spring.) No wonder: despite being somewhat imaginatively overstuffed and offering a too-schematic division of its female characters into life-embracing Brazilians and uptight WASPs, the work is hilarious, humane, and highly theatrical, suggesting a marriage of Isabel Allende and Tony Kushner. (The intrusion of characters into one another’s fantasies is particularly reminiscent of Angels in America.) And for all its seeming arbitrariness, the play is well structured, its initial metaphor about sanitation and repression exploding into a glorious disorder that does not exclude heartbreak and loss from a human stew far lovelier than the perfectly polished coffee table.