Something Clean Leaves Some Things Unpolished
Selina Fillinger's play about the aftershocks of a sexual assault makes its world premiere with Roundabout Underground.
It's troubling that the incident of sexual predation at the heart of Selina Fillinger's Something Clean will sound familiar to today's audiences. What will be less familiar, however, is the play's focus on collateral victims of assault — in this case, two parents (played by Kathryn Erbe and Daniel Jenkins) whose 20-year-old son, Kai, has sexually assaulted a woman near a frat house. In Fillinger's play, we learn little about the attack, and even less about the woman who was raped, other than she was not white. Instead, the play delves into Kai's mother's shattered psyche as she tries to alleviate her overwhelming sense that the horrific incident may somehow be her fault.
Directed by Margot Bordelon, who showed a knack for snappy comedy last year with Eddie and Dave at the Atlantic, the production features some well-performed scenes that illuminate the devastating effects of sexual assault. Bordelon also keeps the pace of this 80-minute play brisk, but ultimately the play lacks the ring of authenticity, giving us instead sentimental and psychologically heavy-handed scenes that clutter an otherwise resonant story.
The play opens in the months before Kai, whom we never meet, is to be released from prison after a mere six-month sentence. White, suburban housewife Charlotte (Erbe playing an emotionally overwhelmed parent) has decided, unbeknownst to her husband, to offer her cleaning services to a sexual-assault center, where she meets a 24-year-old survivor of sexual abuse, Joey (played with depth and charm by Christopher Livingston).
While Charlotte cleans, Joey patiently educates her about the center's mission to help survivors heal, and the two develop a close friendship, though Charlotte never discusses her son's crime. As she immerses herself in her new job, she grows more distant from her husband, Doug (Jenkins playing by turns a hostile and affectionate husband) and eventually shows signs of mental breakdown when she starts compulsively visiting — and cleaning! — the site of her son's crime. But things take a life-changing turn when a chance encounter threatens to end Charlotte's friendship with Joey, and possibly her marriage.
There's much to admire in this small production, which runs in the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center. Reid Thompson's set tells stories by itself, mirroring the two distinct worlds that Charlotte inhabits: On one side is the bland beigeness of her suburban home, with its celibate double bed and unadorned kitchen; and on the other is the center's kitchen, filled with posters featuring life-affirming advice for survivors. In the middle is a large round table where her two worlds meet, and it's here that we see Charlotte's evolution take place as she tries to reconcile her son's behavior with her perceived failure as a mother.
Kudos to Livingston, whose wonderful performance gives the play's opening scenes a burnished shine of truth. His portrayal of a gay man of color who was abused at a young age but managed to find his way to a place of healing is one of the production's high points. His performance is augmented by Valérie Thérèse Bart's colorful sweaters and shirts, which contrast with the drab colors that Charlotte and Doug wear. "I live in the suburbs," she says to Joey at their first meeting. "Which you probably already...guessed," she adds, looking down at her humdrum coat.
To Fillinger's credit, her short scenes, while initially disorienting, do mirror Charlotte's fractured reality, moving her quickly from place to place in what comes to feel like a credible representation of her state of mind. The play begins to wobble, though, in the dumpster scenes, luridly illuminated by Jiyoun Chang. Along with Charlotte's frantic cleaning, two unlikely conversations that she has near the dumpster, one with a police officer (played by Jenkins) and one with a frat boy (played by Livingston), heighten the absurdity. And a forced encounter later on between Joey and Doug deals the play a fatal, histrionic blow.
These sensationalist missteps undermine the play's insights. What should we make of the fact that Charlotte's white son is given six months in a cushy prison while a black youth, she tells her husband, has just gotten 20 years for a similar crime? Fillinger dangles the question in front of us, then allows Charlotte to move on — just as we as a society do every day when confronted with injustice. But it's a question that should be addressed, not swept under the rug.