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Deathly Funny 

Telenovelas are Mexican soap operas, they're as different from the American variety as tortillas are from Bunny Bread. To a gringo, telenovelas may seem wildly over-the-top. But are they? Is pico de gallo too spicy? The merits of the Telenovela bear on The Clean House, recently on the boards in an excellent production at Southern Repertory Theatre.

The set (by Geoffrey Hall) of The Clean House is an upscale, totally white apartment that could be in Manhattan. It's modern and sparse, with something of an asylum look about it. A young woman in a black dress enters and tells the audience a joke in Portuguese, her native tongue. She's the housekeeper and not happy to be cleaning someone else's abode. Her ambition in life is to invent the world's most perfect joke.

Translation and the telenovela style both haunt this play. Is a joke translatable? Is any experience truly translatable? Furthermore, the humor (beyond a particular joke) arises from the maid's obsession with inventing the perfect joke. This sounds more like Nietzsche gone haywire than a Brazilian mania, but the way she came by that obsession is pure telenovela.

The maid, Mathilde (Maria Helan), explains that she wears black because she is in mourning for her mother who died last year. Her parents, it seems, were always telling jokes and laughing together. Finally, her father told one joke too many, and her mother laughed to death. When her mother died, her father shot himself. Clearly, we are dealing with gallows humor. As Mathilde modestly puts it, she was the third funniest person in her family. Much of the interest in the play " as well as some of its shaky moments " spring from this sort of outsized, unrealistic flight of fantasy. And yet, we are fascinated.

In any case, Mathilde works for a doctor named Lane (Leslie Castay) who is married to another doctor, Charles (Bob Edes Jr.). Lane enters dressed in impeccable white so that she almost seems a part of the furnishings in this bleached, but apparently not pristine, environment. She sympathizes with Mathilde, but she wants her home cleaned.

Across the stage, and apparently across town, another woman enters " Virginia, Lane's sister (Tari Hohn Lagasse). Virginia seems to resent her successful sibling. She wouldn't dream of going off to work and letting someone else clean up her house. In fact, Virginia loves to clean. She dotes on it. Cleaning is her talent and her joy.

While Lane is out doctoring, Virginia goes over to her sister's home and makes a deal with Mathilde. Virginia will do the cleaning if Mathilde promises not to tell. Our first hint of what's to come is the appearance of some bright, sexy panties in Lane's and Charles' laundry. Lane herself wears sensible, chaste white underwear.

Charles, it turns out, has fallen in love with one of his patients, but not a curvaceous, young thing as you might expect, given the nature of mid-life crises. Charles new flame Ana (Peggy Walton-Walker) is attractive, but older than Charles. She has breast cancer and he performs a mastectomy on her. As light fades on the end of act one, Charles brings Ana home to introduce her to his wife.

Things get more outrageous. At one point, Charles goes off to Alaska and hikes through the frozen, windblown tundra searching for a tree whose bark has medicinal properties. While this is hilarious in a W.C. Fields, 'Ain't a fit night out for man nor beast" kind of way, it's hard to integrate with the tragic events going on back home, where Ana is succumbing to a recurrence of cancer. But the story starts to come full circle. Ana says she wants to die laughing.

Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House continues Southern Rep's series of new and unusual contemporary offerings. Aimée Hayes directed with a sure hand. The cast was uniformly strong. The characters were well defined and the emotional undercurrents were believable even when the situations left your mind spinning. Perhaps this is not gringo telenovela, but Feydeau a l'Americain " that is to say, farce that's been run through the ringer of Sam Shepard.

click to enlarge Lane (Leslie Castay) talks to her maid Mathilde (Maria Helan) in The Clean House. - JOHN BARROIS
  • John Barrois
  • Lane (Leslie Castay) talks to her maid Mathilde (Maria Helan) in The Clean House.
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