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The Clean House' Opens at Syracuse Stage

Just in time for Mother's Day and spring cleaning, Syracuse Stage offers its final production of the season, Sarah Ruhl's Pulitzer-nominated 2006 comedy, "The Clean House." At just over two weeks, this is a shorter run than usual for the Stage, so my advice is to get your reservations right away so you don't let this quicksilver delight slip through your fingers.

As the young Brazilian maid Mathilde (Gisela Chipe) observes early in the proceedings, no matter how bad things may be, we're not sad every single minute. This would be a great waste of vast stretches of our lives, since playwright Sarah Ruhl manages to invest many small things as well as large with laugh-out-loud humor. Even Mathilde's name becomes a rueful joke that hinges on a combination of its Portuguese pronunciation (Muh-chil-jee), her brisk physician-employer Lane's failure to learn how to say it properly and a subsequent attempt by Lane (Carol Halstead) to save face by claiming, in a moment of sudden inspiration, that she couldn't possibly let her maid go because "she's like one of the family." This is one of those things people say that is supposed to be unassailable, even admirable - until you make a ridiculous, deadpan bungle of the person's name. Telling you more would lose a great deal in the translation unless you've had had the chance to get to know these marvelous characters, because even Lane is likable in this moment.

Many years ago I heard in a workshop that writers must find a way to like their characters, even the despicable ones. Ruhl, who has thoroughly absorbed this basic lesson, starts the play off with a scene in which translation is superfluous. Mathilde introduces herself to the audience by way of an extended bawdy joke that's performed entirely in Portuguese with the help of an oft-repeated punch-line accompanied by enthusiastic inflection and escalating body language. We are already fond of her when we learn Mathilde has left Brazil following the deaths of her parents. Her mother expired by laughing to death at one of her father's jokes and not long after he followed the object of his great passion in the great beyond. (We see Mathilde's recollection of them in warm, tropical orange and reds, just in the hazy distance beyond the picture window of Lane's frosty white, modernist, minimal living room.) Now she's stranded somewhere in "a metaphysical Connecticut, in a house that is not far from the sea and not far from the city."

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