WATERTOWN - It's easy to see why "The Clean House," since its 2004 premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre, has received multiple productions, both around New England and across the country. Sarah Ruhl's play about a housecleaner who hates to clean walks a precarious line between comedy and tragedy, ultimately dazzling us with its ability to blend and transcend such simpleminded distinctions.
So, even though Trinity Repertory Company in Providence and Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater staged the play last season, it's a welcome entry on the New Repertory company's schedule. Director Rick Lombardo has sweetened the pot by assembling a magnificent local cast. If he occasionally pushes the comedy a little too far, at the expense of the deep sadness that runs parallel with it, this version is nonetheless an invigorating, entertaining, and highly pleasurable night of theater.
Not least among the pleasures is to see Paula Plum, Nancy E. Carroll, and Bobbie Steinbach working on the same stage. That's not to slight the marvelously vivacious Cristi Miles as Matilde, the cleaning-averse cleaner, or the gravely amusing Will Lyman as Charles, the sobersided doctor-husband who surprises himself with his own late-arriving passion. But to see three of Boston's best grown-up actresses together, playing off one another with the kind of relaxed ease and flawlessly complementary timing that only years of experience can bring, is a special thrill.
Plum is hilarious and precise as the tightly wound doctor-wife, Lane, who has hired Matilde to swish and sweep her dazzling white house - set in "a metaphysical Connecticut," as Ruhl puts it, "or, a house that is not far from the sea and not far from the city." When we first see Lane, she's dressed head to toe in doctorly white; Matilde's all in black, both because she's cooler than Lane and because she's in mourning for her parents, "the two funniest people in Brazil." It's giving no metaphorical surprises away to reveal that, as the action progresses, Chip Schoonmaker's deliciously appropriate costumes for both women bloom in unexpectedly rich hues.
But first we have the delightfully absurd scheme that sets things in motion, when Lane's underachieving nonprofessional sister, Virginia, having soliloquized about her love of cleaning, secretly offers to clean Lane's house for Matilde while Matilde pursues her own life's purpose, thinking up the perfect joke. Carroll is simply priceless as the quirky, slightly compulsive Virginia; the laughs this woman can induce simply by pressing her lips together or flicking the cord of a vacuum cleaner have to be experienced to be believed.
So far so funny, until an uncharacteristically sexy bit of black lace turns up in the doctor's laundry, which Lane turns up mid-folding, and Charles turns everything upside down for his new love, Ana. That would be Steinbach, in a warm and funny turn as a cancer patient who is determined to live with as much exuberance and zest as possible until she can't - and then to stop, thank you very much.
All this could be the stuff of a naturalistic, slightly sappy midlife drama - "After-Work Special," perhaps? - but not in Ruhl's hands. This young playwright, who recently received a MacArthur "genius" fellowship, has an uncanny knack for creating stunningly real, indisputably believable characters and then setting them loose in a magically surreal world of her own making. Imaginings become real onstage, impossible events simply happen, and all of it, amazingly, feels exactly true.
At New Rep, Cristina Todesco's serenely elegant white set proves itself flexible enough to open up and make room for the vital chaos Ruhl conjures in the second act; Jamie Whoolery's projections, set in the tall gridded windows on the living room's back wall, beautifully enhance and propel the mood with their changing sweeps of scudding clouds, luminous moon, or whirling snow, all just unreal-looking enough to seem really right.
Occasionally, the laughs seem to overshadow the tears here, whereas at Trinity Rep, the blend of humor and grief seemed complex, unpredictable, and profound. Then again, that was my first "Clean House"; this is my third, in less than a year, and it's easy to gird yourself against sadness if you know it's coming.
And it's a fine production indeed if the only criticism is "too funny!" All in all, Lombardo and this wonderfully simpatico cast have created a "Clean House" to treasure. A terrific play, a beautifully designed production, and a dream cast - that's a clean sweep.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.