Immaculate Deception

Immaculate Deception Blair Brown stars as a high-powered physician trying to keep her dysfunctional house in order in Sarah Ruhl's poignant comedy, The Clean House.
Blair Brown
Blair Brown

***

Blair Brown got in on the ground floor of The Clean House. She was one of the first to read Sarah Ruhl's eccentric comedy about life, death and the house-cleaning in between by virtue of the fact that she — along with such worthies as Janet McTeer, James Houghton and Charles Isherwood — awarded it the 2003–2004 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for the best play written in English by a female playwright. It subsequently became a 2005 Pulitzer Prize also-ran and one of the most prodigiously produced (and praised) plays of the year.

A stronger, more conspicuous vote of confidence in the piece rests in the fact that Brown stars in said House, now that it has finally moved to New York and settled, all spic-and-span, into the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. As designed by Christopher Acebo, the set is a vision of spotless, soulless whiteness, worthy of The Good Hospital Seal of Approval — dead-on for a sterile domicile of two high-powered doctors whose marriage is messily hemorrhaging.

The contrast between the pristine exterior and the chaotic interior was there in her head on first reading, says Brown. "Before the prize was announced, I got a flyer in the mail that Mark Wing-Davey was directing a reading of The Clean House at The Women's Project, and I thought I'd better see this play read since we'd given it this prize. They introduced Sarah that night. I kept looking at her, and she kept looking at me - she sorta knew that she'd won, I think — and we became friends. I saw the play's world premiere in New Haven [directed by Bill Rauch, who is directing the Lincoln Center Theater edition], and I saw the one done at the Wilma in Philadelphia. I've seen three different casts do this play — very different — and they were all good. It's a lot about what you bring to the play.

"I had been asked to do some of the regional productions, but it just didn't fit into my schedule. Then, suddenly, this came up, and it was like — for better or worse — destiny." Brown's tightly wound character, Lane, is a career-driven doctor who has no time for menial domesticity — "I didn't go to medical school to clean my own house" — so she delegates, but this does not make her any less crazed a clean-aholic than the archetype of 80 years ago — George Kelly's Pulitzer Prize–winning Craig's Wife (whom Joan Crawford rescrubbed as "Harriet Craig" in an unnecessary, unnoticed Old Dutch Cleanser makeover).

Enter Matilde (Vanessa Aspillaga) from Brazil, where the nuts come from. A worse housekeeper would be hard to imagine. Matilde is more interested in polishing punch lines than furniture, tirelessly pursuing the perfect joke. Her parents, from all accounts (hers), were "the funniest people in Brazil." In fact, her mother literally died laughing at one of her husband's jokes; he, in a massive mea culpa gesture, killed himself. Matilde has taken up the family gauntlet to make people laugh. Housework only brings her down. How she rates on the laugh meter is hard to say, since all of her patter's in Portuguese.

The mother lode of domestic genes in Lane's family settled in her sister, Virginia (played by Jill Clayburgh, who seems to be serious about a stage comeback - this is her fourth role in a year!). Cleaning brings meaning and order to her empty life — "If you don't clean, how do you know if you made any progress?" — so she and Matilde surreptitiously strike a bargain that makes them both happy as long as Lane is none the wiser. Lane is also none the wiser that her husband (John Dossett) has fallen head over heels for one of his cancer patients (Concetta Tomei) — a fact discovered through a simple act of good housekeeping.

"Sarah makes interesting choices as a writer not to go for the expected," says Brown. "It's a fantastic play and hard — hard because simple is always hard. It's simple and poetic and funny. We have to keep it from being sentimental, but it has to leap from the heart. It's thrilling to get a chance to do something where you need to find a way for it to work."

Unexpected themes also arise from the central situation, like the guilt that surfaces when you pay other people to clean up your mess. "My character, Lane, is clearly a person who is very forceful at work, knows how to boss people around and delegate authority, but in her own home she feels very uncomfortable asking someone to do the same kinds of things that, at work, she'd not give a second thought to — like, 'Nurse, clean that up.' But to say 'Would you please clean the bathroom when you get a chance?' is quite different.

"It is a lot about the dynamic of power. I say that very cautiously because this isn't some big hulking psychological drama, but it is those small negotiations always with people of where you are and what your expectations of people are. That's played out in terms of the marriage, in terms of the sisters and in terms of someone you've hired to work for you."

Brown, with the autumn brown bangs, says she would have been perfectly content to whirl blissfully through life in rep "like the Brits do," but "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" magnified her horizons from small screen to big. She won a Tony for Copenhagen and just rushed through four indies in a row, wrapping the last in Uruguay and hitting the ground running to rehearsal from South America —like the maid in The Clean House.

"In real life, I don't have a maid," she confesses. "I'm the maid — so I have a pretty good relationship with her — but she's lazy, my maid. I can't really get her to do what I want."

Blair Brown in <i>The Clean House</i>
Blair Brown in The Clean House Photo by Joan Marcus