Jill Clayburgh and Blair Brown in The Clean House
(© Joan Marcus)
Jill Clayburgh and Blair Brown in The Clean House
(© Joan Marcus)
Life can be messy. And messy can be okay. That's the life lesson learned by sisters Lane (Blair Brown) and Virginia (Jill Clayburgh) in Sarah Ruhl's thoroughly engaging, quasi-absurdist comedy The Clean House, which is getting its long-overdue New York debut at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater in a highly polished production by Bill Rauch, who directed the show's world premiere at Yale Rep in 2004.

That the show has finally hit Gotham this fall is a good thing, but not necessarily for Ruhl. It arrives not just as a former Pulitzer Prize finalist, but mere weeks after Ruhl was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant. Unfortunately, these heightened expectations may cause some audience members to adopt an "is that all there is" attitude to the piece. Yes, it's somewhat slight and it has no respect for conventional structure -- with scenes being preceded by subtitles, constant breaking of the fourth wall, and a slew of quirky touches that even David Lindsay-Abaire might resist. But it's also filled with original characters, snatches of brilliant dialogue, and an enormous amount of compassion for humankind's foibles, all of which compensate for its narrative shortcomings.

Before we meet Lane, a no-nonsense doctor who claims to be beloved by her patients but who shows a distinct lack of cuddly bedside manner, we're introduced to Matilde (Vanessa Aspillaga), her young Brazilian housekeeper. This spirited young woman, who only wears black, hates cleaning; instead, she spends most of her time trying to think up the perfect joke. Humor is in Matilde's blood; her father and mother (played in flashbacks by John Dossett and Concetta Tomei, who show up in other guises in Act II) were the funniest people in their town, and her mother died laughing at one of her father's jokes. Matilde believes that coming up with that perfect joke is her only way of connecting to her past; that it will eventually serve a larger purpose is Ruhl's own inside joke.

Meanwhile, Matilde's dilemma -- to clean or not to clean -- is solved by Virginia, a bored housewife whose greatest joy is to dust, vacuum, and fold laundry, or more precisely to bring order to her universe. She's so proficient at it, however, that her own house is done by mid-afternoon, so she agrees to secretly clean her sister's domicile. The scheme is uncovered at the end of Act I -- and immediately thereafter, a much larger problem arises: Lane's husband and fellow doctor Charles (Dossett) announces he's leaving her for one of his patients, the charismatic, considerably older, Argentinian-born Ana (Tomei).

Ultimately, these five very different people will form their own surprisingly functional family -- even if it means the remains of a vacuum cleaner bag ending up all over a white rug, telling the woman who stole your husband that you hate her (and then forgiving her), or asking your younger sister when she became a bitch. (The answer: When she was born!)

Rauch, who helms the proceedings with smooth precision, has recruited two-thirds of his original creative team: set designer Christopher Acebo, whose white-on-white tile set eventually morphs smartly into Ana's beach house, not to mention the wilds of Alaska; and costume designer Shigeru Yaji, who dresses the characters appropriately if simply. (The fine lighting is by James F. Ingalls.)

Conversely, Rauch has not brought any of the Yale Rep players along for the ride, opting instead for a quintet of top-name talent, each of whom bring their own personal stamp to their roles. Aspillaga, who first impressed as the youngest daughter in Anna in the Tropics, brings delicious deadpan timing to Matilde, while fully capturing her character's inner pain. Tomei, who has specialized in tough-gal roles on television shows such as China Beach and Providence, makes Ana a properly compelling life force. Dossett does what he can with the underwritten role of Charles (and gets bonus points for briefly stripping down to his skivvies.)

Brown seems perhaps a tad too luminous for Lane, but she finds the right balance between the character's outward coldness and inner warmth. Best of all is Clayburgh -- in her fourth stage appearance in the past 12 months -- whose Virginia is little more than a mass of raw nerves. When she explodes, it's the theatrical equivalent of Mt. St. Helens erupting. The clean house may be clean no more, but it's finally lived in!