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Theater review: 'The Clean House' at International City Theatre

September 3, 2010 |  5:00 am

CleanHouse_1NCA search for the perfect joke -- in untranslated Portuguese -- catalyzes the whimsy and gravitas of "The Clean House." Sarah Ruhl's disarming Pulitzer finalist enjoys a tidily affecting production at International City Theatre.

Increasingly a regional theater fixture since its 2004 premiere, "Clean House" engages us via Brazilian-born Matilde (Eileen Galindo), a wannabe standup. This means zilch to upper-class doctor Lane (Caryn West): "Life is about context. And I have met you in the context of my house, where I have hired you to clean."

Unfortunately, when Matilde gets depressed, cleaning is anathema to her, which floors Virginia (Kathy Bell Denton), Lane's polar-opposite sister.  "If you do not clean," asks Virginia, "how do you know if you’ve made any progress in life?”

Their secret bargain satisfies everyone, until adulterous laundry evidence pulls in Charles (Rob Roy Cesar), Lane's surgeon husband, and Ana (Nadia Nardini), his Argentinian former patient. Thus, Ruhl folds magic realism, absurdist fancy and commenting subtitles into a compassionate, multi-tiered parable about mortality, forgiveness and the essential power of laughter.

Director caryn desai stages it with brisk efficiency, assisted by designer Stephen Gifford's white unit set, Kim DeShazo's impressive costumes and Chris Kittrell's pert lighting and sound. The endearing cast deftly manages Ruhl's tricky balance of quirk and pathos, with Cesar and Nardini effectively doubling as Matilde's late parents. 

Yes, at times desai's pace is almost too airtight. Audiences who demand naturalism or explained foreign zingers may be befuddled. That scarcely keeps this pristine "House" from reaching our funny bones and, ultimately, our hearts.

-- David C. Nichols

"The Clean House," International City Theatre at Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept.19. $32-$42. (562) 436-4610. Running time:  1 hour, 35 minutes.

Photo: Caryn West, Nadia Nardini, Eileen Galindo, Kathy Bell Denton. Credit: Shashin Desai