The Clean House
The funniest joke in the world
by Sally Mitani
From the October, 2007 issue
The Clean House, by up-and-coming New York playwright Sarah Ruhl, now at the Performance Network, is an absurdist romp stretched over the bones of a melodrama. It's narrated by Brazilian maid Mathilde (Aphrodite Nikolovski), a descendant of joke tellers who hates to clean but solemnly believes in the hygienic properties of jokes. By "joke" she means not some kind of poncy cerebral humor but the uncomplicated, old-fashioned a-guy-walks-into-a-bar kind of joke that brings the physical catharsis of laughter. She's usually found crafting one of these as she relaxes in the dusty clutter of her employer's home, and she leads the audience and the rest of the cast through the anatomy of a joke, using vaudevillian props, cue cards, fantasy, and flashback. The background melodrama onto which this bagatelle of joke theory is projected is a get-out-the-hankie tale about an unfaithful husband, a mistress dying of cancer, and the redemption of the hardworking but chilly spouse left in the dust.
Director David Wolber makes sure absurdity keeps the upper hand on the melodrama, with plenty of help from set and props (Monika Essen), lights (Daniel Walker), sound (Will Myers), and - perhaps most important to the mix - the extraordinary comic talents of Nikolovski and Milica Govich, who plays yang to Nikolovski's yin.
Govich plays Virginia, the Bryn Mawr-educated sister of Mathilde's employer, a woman who finds the kind of profundity in housework that Mathilde finds in jokes. Though she briskly claims to dislike laughing, the rapport between them is instant: "How old are you?" "I'm young enough to have good skin, old enough to worry that my skin is not good." "Ah, you're twenty-seven." "Right." They continue in an inspired pas de deux of perfect timing, riffing off each other's odd, solitary, but fully furnished internal worlds.
Mathilde's quest for the perfect joke becomes a setup for a theatrical magic trick you've got to see to believe. When Mathilde finally announces she's invented the funniest joke in the world, it's an outrageous taunt to the audience, which (barring the impossible - that you're actually going to hear the funniest joke in the world) can end only in disappointment. Yet when the moment comes, and the joke is told in such a way that the audience can't hear it, the audience doesn't care.
The Clean House continues its run at the Performance Network Thursday through Sunday, ending Sunday, October 21.
[Review published October 2007]
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