The Clean House

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

13/06/2009 - 11/07/2009

Production Details


The Clean House is an award-winning, sparkling romantic comedy about a physician who cannot convince her whimsical Brazilian maid to clean her house.

Lane has got everything – a successful surgeon for a husband and her own busy career as a doctor – but all she truly longs for is a clean house! Matilde, her Brazilian cleaner, hates to clean, instead preferring to dream up the perfect joke. Thankfully, Lane’s sister Virginia loves cleaning and comes to a secret arrangement with Matilde. 

Meanwhile, Lane’s husband Charles becomes enchanted by one of his patients, the free-spirited Ana who casts a surreal spell over the clean house. 

"One of the finest and funniest plays you’re likely to see… Romantic, but also a little nuts"New York Times 

The Clean House came from a chance remark overheard by playwright Sarah Ruhl at a party. "My cleaning lady is depressed and won’t clean my house," a doctor at the party said. "So I took her to the hospital and had her medicated. And she still won’t clean!" From that singular moment, Ruhl spun this intriguingly offbeat play about laughter and life that beautifully manages to avoid pretension.

The Clean House won the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2004, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005. In this Circa Theatre season we present a stellar team with a multiple Chapman Tripp winning Director (Susan Wilson), three Chapman Tripp Theatre Award winning actors (Jane Waddell, Erin Banks & Michele Amas), Jude Gibson returning to the role of Lane after a smash hit season of The Clean House at the Fortune Theatre (Dunedin), and presenting international actor Alan Lovell, who has featured in numerous films – including Mission Impossible!

"A wondrously mad and moving work." Variety

Circa Theatre – 1 Taranaki St
13 June – 11 July,
Tues & Wed 6.30pm, Thurs-Sat 8.00pm and Sun 4.00pm
BOOKINGS: 04 801 7992 or
COST: Adults $38 / Over 65 $30 / Under 25 $20 / Groups 6+ $32ea


Michelle Amas            :  VIRGINIA
Erin Banks:  MATILDE
Jude Gibson:  LANE
Alan Lovell:  CHARLES/MAN
Jane Waddell:  ANA/WOMAN

Set by John Hodgkins
Lighting by Ulli Briese
Costume by Paul Jenden

Stage Manager:  Deb McGuire
Operator:  Marcus McShane
Video Design:  Andrew Simpson
Choreographer:  Paul Jenden
Soundscape:  Ulli Breise
Publicity:  Brianne Kerr
Graphic Design:  Rose Miller, Toolbox Creative
Photography:  Stephen A'Court
House Manager:  Suzanne Blackburn
Box Office:  Linda Wilson

Frustrating to watch

Review by Lynn Freeman 17th Jun 2009

This is one of those annoying plays that changes its mind about what it is around halfway through.  Having been farcically funny in the first half, we get pathos and real emotion in the second, too late for us to suddenly care about this weird mix of women and their cleaning/anti cleaning phobias. 

The Clean House starts with a joke, in Portuguese, but it’s still funny.  That’s thanks to how Erin Banks tells, it as the maid-with-attitude Matilde, who wants to be telling jokes not cleaning Lane’s house. Her mother died laughing about a joke told by her father.  The play comes alive when Matilde/Erin is on stage – reminiscing, being cheeky, joke telling.  More of her story would make for a more interesting play.

Sisters Lane (Jude Gibson) and Virginia (Michelle Amas) are as different as chalk and cheese.  Virginia is obsessed with cleanliness, Lane wants a clean house but hasn’t got time to do it herself, hence having a maid. Lane’s house is all stark white, clinical as the hospital in which she and her husband Charles work.  But even she can’t mend her broken heart when Charles (Alan Lovell) falls in love with the exotic Ana (Jane Waddell).

Charles is hardly relevant to the story really, this is very much about the four women and their relationship.  Ana begins as a threat then becomes a victim and a friend.  Lane and Virginia learn the real meaning of compassion.

The play is told not only on stage but also partially on screen, with short intermittent explanations of what’s happening, and these are pretty cute.  The acting is heightened to the level of farce, matching what’s in the script, though the laughs ease off in the second half when Ana becomes part of the mix.

Writer Susan Ruhl is held in very high regard. Her plays have won awards and she was given a half-million dollar fellowship, and she’s only in her mid 30s. 

Information like that can make a reviewer question their dislike of a play.  What do others see in it that you don’t or can’t?  Is it the script or the production which fall short?  Or both or neither – or maybe you just weren’t in the right mood for this play?

For whatever reason or combination of reasons, this play was more frustrating than satisfying.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


Welly Watch June 19th, 2009

I too find this review strange. Is Lynn annoyed because it wasn't predictable? Personally I prefer surprises.

Captain Obvious June 18th, 2009

 Yes, Lynn, save us from plays that dare to stray from within the strict confines of one genre. *roll eyes*

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A mix of laughter and tears

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 17th Jun 2009

If you find there’s a shortage of apples this month you can blame The Blackening at Bats and The Clean House at Circa, for in both plays apples litter the stage and are symbols for a lost happiness in the former and a present and future happiness in the latter.

Sarah Ruhl’s award-winning play seasons quirky comedy with seriousness in an appealing, if at times a little too whimsical a manner. However, this American comedy most certainly entertains and intrigues as did one of its masculine ancestors The Man Who Came to Dinner in which an outsider liberates people from the prison of their unfulfilled lives.

The outsider is Matilde, a Brazilian maid who hates cleaning, and she starts the play by telling a long risque joke (brilliantly performed by Erin Banks) in untranslated Portuguese. Surtitles tell us that she is searching for the funniest joke in the world. Her boss is an uptight doctor, Lane, who "did not go to medical school to clean my own house." She is married to a Days of Our Lives-handsome surgeon, Charles, who falls in love with a patient Ana.

Luckily for Matilde, Lane has a sister, Virginia, who is obsessive about cleaning (she sighs with pleasure on opening a cupboard full of cleaning equipment) and she secretly takes over Matilde’s duties who continues her search for that elusive funniest joke.

Susan Wilson’s light-of-touch production is Circa at its best with a sleek, smart all-white set (John Hodgkins), chic costumes (Paul Jenden), and a beautifully chosen cast: Michelle Amas’s Virginia folding Charles’s underwear with  loving strokes, Jude Gibson’s Lane unable to pronounce Matilde’s name, Jane Waddell and Alan Lovell doubling as Matilde’s dancing dead parents and as Ana and Charles who tell Lane that as soul mates they can according to Jewish law ditch previous relationships, and Erin Banks outstanding as Matilde confused by the mechanics of an ironing board but inspired by the mechanics of humour.

The play ends in a mixture of laughter and tears having touched lightly on the randomness of life (Lane’s spotless, soulless house in complete disarray), a futile romantic gesture in the wilds of Alaska, mortality and how to cope with it. You leave the theatre with a warm comforting glow.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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Bringing lightness to dirt, dust and death

Review by John Smythe 14th Jun 2009

The Clean House is a play that touches us in different ways and gets people talking afterwards, or it did after Circa’s opening night. Everyone I spoke to was surprised by it, in a positive way.

In The New Yorker, critic-at-large John Lahr writes, "[Sarah] Ruhl is a fabulist. Her plays celebrate what she calls "the pleasure of heightened things." In them, fish walk and caper (Passion Play), stones talk and weep (Eurydice), a dog is a witness to and the narrator of a family tragedy (Dog Play), a woman turns into an almond (Melancholy Play). Ruhl’s characters occupy, she has said, ‘the real world and also a suspended state’."

Lahr also reveals that had it not been for playwright/ teacher Paula Vogel,* who wept over the emotional maturity of Ruhl’s early work as a Brown University student, and was the motive force behind Passion Play‘s premiere production, Ruhl (who had gone on to study English literature at Oxford) may have limited herself to poetry.

Do not, then, assume that Circa’s promotion of The Clean House as "a sparkling comedy" means it is a light-weight romp about doing or avoiding domestic chores.

We may deduce from Lahr’s interview that the ‘lightness’ Ruhl seeks out and honours in all her work arises from her appreciation of Italian writer Italo Calvino’s essay Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988), in which he rates lightness as the foremost imaginative quality the new millennium should call into play (along with quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity and consistency).

According to Ruhl (via Lahr), "Lightness isn’t stupidity. It’s actually a philosophical and aesthetic viewpoint, deeply serious, and has a kind of wisdom – stepping back to be able to laugh at horrible things even as you’re experiencing them."

In The Clean House, while dust and disorder take their toll, the more "horrible things" that are confronted, with a remarkably profound and insightful lightness, are infidelity and terminal cancer.

To bookend The Clean House, Ruhl simply plays with the idea of laughing at things we don’t understand. It opens with Matilde, the Brazilian maid in mourning, telling a ‘dirty’ joke in Portuguese with rhythm, tone, expression, timing and physical embellishments that ensure we laugh despite the foreign language. At the end, she imagines heaven as a place full of people laughing at untranslatable jokes.

Matilde – brilliantly realised at Circa by Erin Banks – also tells us (in English) that her parents’ relationship thrived on their telling each other jokes and her mother died laughing at one of her father’s best, whereupon he shot himself. Now Matilde’s sole quest in life is to think up the perfect joke: "A good joke," she claims, "cleans your insides out."

House-cleaning, however, holds no interest whatever for her, much to the uptight incredulity of her success-driven doctor employer, Lane, played with brittle propriety by Jude Gibson (reprising the role she played two years ago at Dunedin’s Fortune Theatre). Her blood runs as cold in her veins as Matilde’s runs hot.

Lane’s unhappily married and isolated housewife sister Virginia, however – robustly realised by Michelle Amas – has made a vocation of obsessive house-cleaning, not least to distract herself from the bizarre fantasies that flood her mind if she gives herself time to stop and think.

As directed by Susan Wilson, the first half is methodically played out – in John Hodgkins’ pristine white set, well lit by Ulli Briese – as a fairly standard situation comedy verging on farce: Virginia conspires with Matilde to do the housework while keeping it secret from Lane whose ordered life gets emotionally messy when she discovers her husband, Charles, has fallen in love with an older woman patient.

Paul Jenden’s excellent costumes contrast Matilde’s lacy black with Lane’s soulless white and ensure each splash or spread of colour signifies something about the wearer.

The deconstructing devices that initially lift the play beyond naturalism include direct-address; projected scene captions (e.g. ‘Matilde tries to think up the perfect joke’); and manifestations of Matilde’s ever-laughing parents, and Charles and his new love, Ana (both couples played by Alan Lovell and Jane Waddell).

There is even a random moment of externalised subtext where, as the caption explains, ‘Lane and Virginia experience a primal moment in which they are 7 and 9 years old’. But the twist that tells us we’re in ‘fabulist’ – or at least ‘magic realist’ – territory comes just before interval, when Lane’s bitter-sweet fantasy, of Charles tending lovingly to Ana, is also seen by Matilde as real.

As the second half unfolds I realise I have to divest my logical male mind of the expectation that set-ups will be progressed and paid off in the usual fashion, and abandon myself to a more subjective and feminine process of changing perceptions and understandings. 

The well trodden paths of sibling rivalry and inter-spouse antagonism give way to our growing interest in ‘the other woman’, Ana. She is truly made worthy of our empathy by Waddell, first as she and a luminous Lovell express the quality of true love as opposed to admiration, then as her secondary cancer takes hold.

What becomes important – what the play is really about – is how each woman responds to this situation, while Charles (a relative cipher), is relegated to doing ‘the man thing’: trekking to Alaska to find the miracle cure.

I cannot articulate the significance of such surreal touches as partly-munched apples tossed from Ana’s balcony landing in Lana’s living room. Nor do I get the meaning, in this context, of the fable about a ship setting out filled with valuable ice only to arrive at its destination holding nothing but worthless water – especially when, in the play’s final moments, water cleans not only a body but also, in effect, ‘the air’.

Nevertheless scenarios that most playwrights would see as heavy achieve a fabulous lightness through the alchemy of the women’s humane and compassionate responses to an undeniably sad yet liberating situation.

‘The perfect joke’, it must be noted, has a special role to play in the penultimate moments. So if we accept this play is a fable, its purpose is to reveal the efficacy in a lightness of being. That is, its moral is simply, ‘lighten up’.
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* Paula Vogel is known to Wellington audiences for How I Learned to Drive (Circa, May 1999) and Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief (Te Whaea, July 2003).
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 



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