Elsewhere in BTL this week: ‘Seven Passages: The Story of Gay Christians’ in Grand Rapids.
With pretty much every play that’s ever produced, the audience is expected to “suspend its disbelief” – that is, to accept as fact that Peter Pan can fly, or that no one in a handful of Shakespearian plays recognizes that two people who look absolutely nothing alike are identical twins, or that three days have passed during the last 90 minutes.
In the well-staged and beautifully-acted “The Clean House” at Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre, playwright Sarah Ruhl asks us to suspend our disbelief in a number of very fun, unique and entertaining ways. However, the playwright wanders into dangerous territory with a major plot twist in the second act that threatens to derail an otherwise engaging story. Therefore – despite how well the story is told – the show’s ultimate success depends on one thing: Will the audience buy into it?
A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, “The Clean House” mixes farce, absurdist comedy and a dash of soap opera to explore human relationships. The catalyst is 27-year-old Mathilde (played by Aphrodite Nikolovski), a Brazilian immigrant in search of the perfect joke. (Her parents were the two funniest people in their village, and since their tragic deaths, she’s under great pressure to assume the number one spot.) Employed as a live-in maid for a cold and arrogant American doctor, the joke is on her employer, Lane (Barb Coven): Mathilde hates to clean, so she agrees to let Lane’s neat-freak sister Virginia (Milica Govich) do it for her.
But after their duplicity is discovered, a greater secret is revealed that threatens the trio’s symbiotic relationship – and her name is Ana (Naz Edwards). A recent cancer survivor, the dazzling 60-something Brazilian in not only a patient of Lane’s husband Charles (Jon Bennett), she’s also the younger man’s soul mate and lover.
But when the cancer returns – and Ana refuses hospitalization – how should the very hurt and angry Lane respond?
And therein sits the conundrum for theatergoers. Most are willing to suspend their disbelief when it makes sense to do so, but should we believe that Lane would shuck all normal human emotions and care for the woman in her own home – no matter how delightful the home wrecker is? In a romantic fantasy world, maybe. But eavesdropping after the opening night production revealed many did not – including a certain cranky critic. (Maybe it’s a gender thing: Most who shared my opinion were men.)
However, that doesn’t detract from David Wolber’s slick direction that seamlessly interweaves the plot’s various unconventional storytelling elements. Nor does it denigrate the fine performances of all five actors who create fully-realized characters – flaws and all.
Nikolovski – with all-telling eyes and delicate facial expression – proves once again why she is one of the top local actresses of her generation, especially when she elicits laughs while telling a lengthy joke in Portuguese. Coven subtly explores the many complicated shades of Lane, who struggles to express her inner warmth. The handsome Bennett, who has little to do in the script’s least developed role, is welcome to strip to his boxers anytime on stage, while Edwards certainly lights up the theater with her effervescence.
But it’s Govich you can’t help but watch every time she walks onto the stage. And her meltdown in the second act is worth the price of admission.
(FOR “REVIEW BOX”)
‘The Clean House’
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron, Ann Arbor. Thu.-Sun., through Oct. 21. Tickets: $25-$37. For information: 734-663-0681 or http://www.performancenetwork.org.