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The Arts
January 25-31, 2006

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Visiting Mr. Green

Photograph by Kit Wilder
Table Stable: Jeff Clarke (left) brings some order to Ed Pliska's life in City Lights' 'Visiting Mr. Green.'

Spic and Span

TheatreWorks' 'The Clean House' and City Lights' 'Visiting Mr. Green' find emotional undercurrents to tidying up

By Marianne Messina

WHAT IS the meaning of cleaning? A couple of new plays may lead you to ponder this very question. In TheatreWorks' The Clean House, a doctor named Lane (Heather Ehlers) has no time to clean her own house, preferring to hire a stranger—Brazilian maid Matilde (Stephanie Beatriz)—to do it for her. Lane's housewife sister, Virginia (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone), wants to clean Lane's house. While Lane looks at housework as beneath her, Virginia refers to it as a "privilege," and in her zeal for getting rid of nasty, dirty things, she makes a deal with Matilde to do Lane's cleaning on the sly.

In Visiting Mr. Green at City Lights, the 86-year-old Mr. Green (Ed Pliska) has recently lost his wife, and his withdrawal from life is evident in the disheveled nature of his home. When the young, corporate careerist Ross Gardiner (Jeff Clarke) first visits Mr. Green (Ross has been court-ordered to do so as punishment for nearly hitting the old man with his car), he starts off by tidying up. Soom, it appears that Mr. Green is keeping the place tidy himself. As Ross' visits start to draw Mr. Green out of his lethargy, housecleaning (or the lack of it) serves as a barometer not only for Mr. Green's engagement with life but for his acceptance of his wife's missing presence.

The mission of the black-clad stagehand who comes out during the musical interludes between scenes is to straighten up or mess up the setting. After one setback between Ross and Mr. Green (Pliska is wonderfully subtle), the kitchen cabinet doors are throw open, and one of the curtains is closed.

The genius of the City Lights production lies in the timing. Director Jane Bement Geesman has resisted the usual comedic imperative for a speedy flow of action and words. Though Mr. Green is sharp and funny, he is after all an 86-year-old man of habit, living alone. The production's easy pace makes for an exquisite contrast between Ross' quick-step life and Mr. Green's solitary, twilight one. Clarke gives Ross a purposeful feel without seeming jittery or uncomfortable. In fact, this ability to adapt to Mr. Green's slower pace signals us that Ross has what it takes to be a healing force in the old man's life.

In a sense, The Clean House, with its shadow-puppet shows to illustrate Matilde's "This is how I imagine my parents ..." moments, is more ambitious than Visiting Mr. Green. On a split-level stage, the scenes with Ana (Olivia Negrón), the "other woman" who has enchanted Lane's husband, Charles, take place on a red, railed balcony amid impressionistic tropical landscape designs in hot colors.

Below that balcony sits Lane's sterile living room, where all the furniture is white. Items tossed from the balcony land in Lane's living room. Also fun is when the anally clean sister Virginia goes postal, trashing the cleanness. Between that mess and the one Mr. Green's house starts out in, there's food for thought on the meanings of "letting go." Fortunately for playwright Sarah Rhul, her conceptual creativity in the hands of TheatreWorks' production team saves her tale from a sophomoric text—the tired discussion of class and housekeepers, the cliché about the lovable person (Ana) who is "full of life" and dying of cancer. Most magical are the dumb shows by puppet designer Lynn Jeffries, lighting designer Steven B. Mannshardt and choreographer Paco Gomes.

For all their metaphors on cleanliness—as a surrogate for control, as avoidance, as engagement with life—these shows communicate best on a less analytical level. As a result, you may leave one theater feeling youthfully reckless, wanting to savor the moment, and leave the other theater with a hopeful glow.

The Clean House plays through Feb. 12 at the Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $20-$52 (650.903.6000). Visiting Mr. Green plays through Feb. 19 at City Lights, 529 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets are $20-$35. (408.295.4200)

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