The Clean House is an award-winning play by Sarah Ruhl, which premiered in 2004 at Yale Repertory Theatre and has since been produced in many American cities. The play is a whimsical romantic comedy centered on Mathilde, a Brazilian cleaning woman who would rather be a comedian.
Mathilde, a recently-hired Brazilian maid for Lane, is moderately new to America. A year prior, her parents, both comedic geniuses in Brazil, died within days of each other. Mathilde explains that her mother died while laughing at her father's joke and her father shot himself after. Ever since, Mathilde has vowed to find the 'perfect joke' even though she is convinced it will kill her.
Lane, a doctor, is upset when she finds Mathilde not cleaning and prescribes anti-depressants for her. Soon, Mathilde meets Lane' sister, Viriginia. Virginia, who is 'obsessed' with cleanliness, offers to clean the house for Mathilde before Lane comes home from the hospital where she works.
Soon thereafter, Mathilde and Virginia discover 'foreign' panties in Lane's laundry and begin suspecting her 'handsome' husband Charles is cheating on her. Their suspicions are confirmed when Lane tells them that Charles has left her for an older woman named Ana, a patient of his who had had breast cancer and is now recovering from a mastectomy. Lane becomes frantic and fires Mathilde, but right before Virginia announces that Charles and Ana are on her doorstep.
The second act begans as Ana, a free-spirited Argentinean, and Charles, are let into the house awkwardly. Ana and Mathilde bond immediately. Charles tells Lane that he feels Ana is his soul mate and that he is sorry, but Lane, still frantic and heartbroken, dismisses them both. Now good friends with the other woman, Mathilde eventually decides to 'spend time at both houses', and the two later go apple-picking together.
Meanwhile, back at Lane's house, she and her sister have several falling-outs. Virginia decides to get a job to spite Lane, and Lane falls into a deep and bitter depression.
Soon, Mathilde arrives back at Lane's home with news that Ana's cancer has come back and that she refuses to go to a hospital. Charles, frantic for his lover's health, goes out to Alaska to cut down a Yew tree, which supposedly has healing powers. Mathilde manages to convince Lane to visit Ana. While at Ana's home, Lane examines Ana with an air of coldness before breaking down and crying. It is here Mathilde discovers her 'perfect joke' and realizes that it did not kill her after all.
Lane allows Ana to move in with her while Charles is away. Lane makes amends with Ana as well as Mathilde and Virginia. As time passes, Charles sends telegrams, begging Ana to hold on until he gets back with the tree. But Ana's condition grows quickly worse until one day, she asks Mathilde to 'kill her with a joke' tomorrow. Mathilde reluctantly agrees. The next morning, she tells Ana a joke in Portuguese, and the women laugh hysterically until Ana falls over laughing and dies in Mathilde's arms. Mathilde cries loudly, and upon hearing the noise, Lane and Virginia cry over the body as well. It is here that Charles returns, upset. Lane runs to him and kisses his forehead, saying that all is forgiven between them.
Mathilde ends the play imagining her mother laughing as she gave birth to her, and thinks that perhaps heaven is a land of untranslatable jokes, but everyone laughs anyway.
The Clean House won the 2004 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, awarded annually to the best English-language play written by a woman, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. It has received glowing reviews from certain critics: Variety called the play a “…wondrously mad and moving work…” and Charles Isherwood of The New York Times dubbed it a deeply romantic comedy, “…visionary, tinged with fantasy, extravagant in feeling, maybe a little nuts.” Other publications, such as The Village Voice and The New Yorker were more critical, registering complaints about the play's style and its treatment of Mathilde. At the end of 2006, Entertainment Weekly magazine named the New York production one of the top ten theatrical attractions of the year.
"The Clean House" has been produced at South Coast Repertory (West Coast premiere, January 2005), the Goodman Theatre (spring 2006, in Ruhl's native Chicago), The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington, D.C. (July 11 — August 14, 2005) , Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (New York premiere, October 2006), Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, England (April 2006, European Premiere) and at Northampton's Royal & Derngate theatres (Feb 08 then UK tour)
The Sheffield production featured Patricia Hodge (Lane) and Eleanor Bron (Ana/Mathilde's mother). It was directed by Samuel West. Both actors revive these roles for Northampton and UK tour, directed by John Dove.
The Lincoln Center production featured Blair Brown (Lane), Jill Clayburgh (Virginia), John Dossett (Charles/Mathilde's father), Concetta Tomei (Ana/Mathilde's mother), and Vanessa Aspillaga (Mathilde).
The Clean House was shown at The Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury in March and April 2008
A French version was played in Montreal a the Espace Libre theatre in Feburary 2008 called "Une maison propre"