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Death, adultery and the world’s funniest joke

Alex Miller
Special to the Daily/DCTC Matilde (Romi Dias) shirks her maid duties in favor of thinking up jokes in the Denver Center's production of "The Clean House."
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DENVER – Remember that old Monty Python skit where the English learn a joke so funny that it can make people die laughing, so they use it against the Nazis?No? Well, it exists, take my word for it. And while it may be high time to resurrect on stage the notion of a joke so funny it kills, I wasn’t prepared for the treatment of such by Sarah Ruhl, whose play “The Clean Room” is now running at the Denver Center Theatre Company.This is a play that comes at you from all directions, most of them unexpected. The focal point is the dippy Matilde, a Brazilian woman who comes to the U.S. after her parents die (her mother from laughing at one of her father’s jokes; her father from killing himself after his wife dies). Taking a job as a maid in the home of two doctors, Matilde (Romi Dias) finds she’s too sad to clean, preferring instead to focus her energy on coming up with great jokes.

Some of these she relates in untranslated Portuguese, which turn out to be wonderfully funny. But Lane (Caitlin O’Connell) is unimpressed, concerned only with having her home cleaned. Things work out wonderfully for Matilde, though, when Lane’s batty sister Virginia (Charlotte Booker) turns up, professing a need to clean so great that it can’t be satisfied in her own home.Ruhl sets us up for a farce but instead delivers a twisted, quasi-tragic take on the many meanings of clean and messy. When Lane’s house is finally sparkling, she discovers her doctor-husband Charles (an underused Jamie Horton) is having an affair with one of his patients, Ana (Judith Delgado). Switching from her immaculate white clothing to gray sweats, Lane gradually starts accepting more and more mess in her life, which turns out to be as frustrating as it is liberating for her.Much has been made of Ruhl’s script, which won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (whatever that is). At 32, the playwright has a nicely developed touch for dialogue as well as how the action is staged. With an artfully designed set, “The Clean House” has scenes that take place in the doctors’ house, in a blizzard in Alaska, on a deck overlooking the ocean and in a hospital operating room. Somehow, it all works, paralleling the different situations in which the characters find themselves from scene to scene.”The Clean House” is an odd bit of theatre; the kind of play you might walk out of not knowing exactly what to think. Billed as a comedy, it actually works more as a romantic tragedy with some nice bits of the surreal thrown in. How Lane comes to be nursing the dying Ana while Charles is off chopping down trees in Alaska is as peculiar a bit of plot as you’re likely to run into. But the play also zeroes in on the pain of a too-comfortably married couple forced to confront that domestic ennui when the hot flash of romance enters the picture.

This play is part of a series of four works by female playwrights running at the Denver Center Theatre Company. “The Clean House” is certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like your romantic comedy shaken rather than stirred, it could be just the ticket.If you go:



What: “The Clean House” by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Wendy C. GoldbergWhere: The Denver Center’s Stage Theatre, 1101 13th St., DenverWhen: Mon-Sat through April 22Tickets: online at denvercenter.org or by phone at 800-641-1222

Alex Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14625, or amiller@vaildaily.com.Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado


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