It takes a special kind of talent to defuse death with laughter.
Luckily for anyone seeking solace from the nervous terror of the past week, that rare gift is on full display in Sarah Ruhl’s play “The Clean House,” an absorbing morality tale in which the power of humor transcends the horror of sickness and suffering.
The play, starring the effusive Victoria Perez as a Brazilian maid in search of the perfect joke, opened Friday night in the Road Less Traveled Theatre just as the great national drama playing out in Boston reached its harrowing conclusion.
The lights went up shortly after 7:30 p.m., just after news of the young suspect’s apprehension made its way onto the smartphone screens of audience members. But from the very first moment, Perez banished any thoughts of terrorism with a comic feat of a type I’ve never before seen on a stage. That is, Perez delivered a long and involved joke entirely in Portuguese, which the majority of the audience could not understand, and made us all howl with laughter.
With that opening salvo, Ruhl proves something important about the craving for humor in the human psyche – an almost genetic desire to laugh even if we can’t quite grasp the punch line. Perez’s character, an unhappy live-in maid for a humorless doctor (Tina Rausa) and her free-spirited surgeon husband (Peter Palmisano), moved to the United States after her parents’ deaths.
Matilde’s mother, as Perez relates in a doleful and yet absurdly funny anecdote, died after listening to a joke that her father had lovingly constructed over the course of a year. Her father, distraught at his wife’s untimely demise, soon killed himself.
That left Matilde with no one to laugh at her own jokes. So she picked up and moved to the States, only to find herself listlessly toiling away in the chilly, modernist house of a humorless doctor. The situation cannot last, and doesn’t. We soon meet the doctor’s neurotic sister Virginia (Margaret Massman, a hilarious ball of nerves), who surreptitiously cleans the doctor’s house in Matilde’s place while forming a close friendship with the comedy-obsessed maid.
The plot thickens after Palmisano’s character reveals his infidelity – told in a purposely ridiculous series of vignettes set to operatic music and augmented with cheeky narrative supertitles – with one of his ailing patients (Mary McMahon).
Director Derek Campbell’s campy approach to the production is in perfect sync with the often tongue-in-cheek nature of Ruhl’s script, which blurs the traditional boundaries between time, place and character to make the piece feel like a living New Yorker cartoon, only funnier.
That’s helped by Lynne Koscielniak’s pristine set, Katie Menke’s clever sound design and John Rickus’ sensitive lighting. One scene, in which Rausa’s character looks on skeptically as Matilde folds one of her husband’s shirts into a sloppy, burrito-like shape, is a exemplary execution of one of Ruhl’s many simple but effective visual gags.
Ruhl’s approach is uncommonly smart and streamlined. Her use of a common reference point like domestic help, already freighted with associations in the public mind, helps her avoid the tricky and often didactic work of exposition. That allows the lighthearted absurdity of the plot to play out against a serious backdrop, creating an ideal fusion of comedy and meaning.
At one point near the start of the second act, Massman’s neurotic character – the ironic voice of reason in this whole madcap affair – laments modern society’s tendency toward isolation.
“Now, we are all alone in our separate houses,” she says, “And it is terrible.”
After a week of constant anxiety, as many of us sat in our own separate houses flipping between CNN and Twitter, a visit to the communal healing space of theater is the ideal prescription. At times like this, it is an immeasurable help to sit in a small room with a hundred or so other people, each of us so eager to lose ourselves in a flight of fantasy and laughter. As a balm for this week’s national trauma, and much more besides, “The Clean House” delivers.