SARASOTA — Why is The Clean House so bad? Is the production by Banyan Theater Company to blame, or is it Sarah Ruhl's play?
Both, actually, but the play is the more puzzling issue. After all, Ruhl's comedy-drama was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005 and has been widely produced. The playwright won a MacArthur "genius'' grant the next year.
Maybe Ruhl has been unfairly burdened by the great expectations that come with such acclaim, but The Clean House is disappointing.
Set in "a metaphysical Connecticut,'' it's about a high-powered doctor whose Brazilian maid is depressed. Instead of doing her job, the maid spends her time trying to dream up the perfect joke, and the play begins with her telling one in Portuguese.
This implausible scenario is Ruhl's take on multiculturalism for the suburban gentry. The maid finds an ally in the doctor's neatnik sister, who does the housecleaning for her. Then the doctor's surgeon-husband leaves her for a cancer patient, an Argentinian who is his "soul mate.'' The second act veers into vapid magic realism, with the wayward husband trudging through snowy Alaska in search of a yew tree (its bark supposedly cures cancer).
Freud said jokes are funny because they express forbidden sexual urges. Many of those told by the maid fit that bill, except they are not funny. "Why are men in bed like microwave food? They're done in 30 seconds,'' goes one, translated in subtitles above the stage.
Karina Barros gives a flashy performance as the maid. She has the mugging, eager style of a beauty queen or TV personality, and it's exhausting to watch her. The other actors — Seva Anthony, Geraldine Librandi, Robert Herrle and Ann Morrison — are lost in Douglas Jones' pointless direction.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.