The Unicorn’s Clean House knows the importance of a dirty joke

Here’s the key to enjoying The Clean House, Sarah Ruhl’s highly touted comedy, now receiving great tides of applause at the Unicorn Theatre: Accept that a play can share something vital about the human condition even when its own humans behave in ways that no humans would.

If that doesn’t work, just focus on the precious bits and on Vanessa Severo, who has never been as good as she is here. Part dancer and part Fury, Severo has for several years classed up local productions by being unladylike. In such shows as Desdemona or the remarkable Coppelia Project, she has been brash and tempestuous, an elegant hellion, snarling with a laugh and laughing with a snarl.

Great as she has been, Severo’s work in The Clean House is a breakthrough, for her or the people who cast her as Matilde, a Brazilian maid employed by a Connecticut doctor. Her Matilde is hilariously original, bristling with life. She’s a sexy Groucho, a high-heeled maid, a comedian without neuroses. Matilde holds fast to laughter and to the other things in life that Ruhl wants audiences to believe matter the most. With Severo in the part, those things seem like all that any of us could need.

Ruhl uses a humane absurdism, one rooted in an appealing interest in the domestic. The story might seem at first to be a series of whimsical notions, but it’s actually somewhat schematic. Matilde, who dresses in black, tends the dazzlingly white home of a white doctor (Peggy Friesen) who is done up, from pumps to pearls, in the snowiest white. Problem is, cleaning makes Matilde sad. She’d rather sit and invent jokes like the ones her parents — now dead — were celebrated for back home.

The show opens with Matilde telling a dirty joke in Portuguese. Thanks to Severo’s dancing eyes and grinding hips, we get the gist. What matters aren’t the specifics of Matilde’s jokes, which Ruhl (as an arch joke of her own) never translates. What matters is the lowdown, full-bodied pleasure of a good laugh, a treat this show offers in abundance.

As the first act bops along, scored to joyous sambas, a satiric farce takes hold. The doctor’s sister (Jan Rogge) is a cleaning obsessive with too much time on her hands and offers to do Matilde’s cleaning for her — as long as the doctor never finds out. Then, sorting through the doctor’s underwear (white) and the doctor’s husband’s underwear (white), the sister discovers a lacy thong (not white at all).

What follows is gentle, impossible comedy about adultery, disease, forgiveness and how laughter is life.

It’s about time that a serious play reminded us how funny it is to prance about with underwear on your head.

At its best, The Clean House is as potent a celebration of the power of laughter as Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. At its worst, in the scenes just after intermission dealing with the doctor’s marriage, its whimsies are so far removed from human behavior that the fun, for me, comes to a stop. Walter Coppage, as the doctor’s husband, is uncharacteristically broad; when he plays up a goofy scene’s goofiness, it seems like sketch comedy.

Several scenes later, once we’ve swallowed the impossible (or we haven’t), director Cynthia Levin restores the show’s balance, and the pleasures of Ruhl’s script once again take hold. Of these surprises, I’ll say nothing except this: Ruhl’s thinking here might be schematic, but it’s also clever and involving. A running metajoke is especially enjoyable — moments that should be just between a soliloquizing character and the audience, according to theatrical convention, turn out to have been heard by everybody onstage. In the second act, this is taken even further, just as a good joke should be.

As the doctor who hired Matilde, Peggy Friesen is also excellent. The nonplussed spin she puts on lines, like “I don’t always understand the arts,” tells us much more about the upper middle class than all of the lines she had in Nickel and Dimed, a Unicorn show from two seasons back that covered some of this same material without actually crafting it into art. Jan Rogge makes the most of the clean-freak sister, the most underwritten of the female roles. Merle Moores plays an effervescent Argentinian named Ana; she’s never convincingly Argentinian, but she’s so good at the effervescence that the audience rolls with it.

Jason Coale’s set is a cold, white living room with shellback chairs, a great trapezoidal window, and the spare and sterile feel of a high-end boutique. It nicely reflects the doctor’s world, both inside and out. Better still, it’s so immaculate that we crave its besmirchment — blood or grape juice or something. When it comes, that something is one of Ruhl’s (and Rogge’s) best, silliest moments.

It’s mostly those silliest moments that make The Clean House a memorable play. It’s Severo’s silliest moments that make it a hit.

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Categories: A&E, Stage