The Clean House

by Adam Brinklow

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday February 16, 2016

The Clean House

"The Clean House" at Contra Costa Civic Theatre is a play about translations: words translating from one language to another, as well as people translating from one kind of relationship to another and, eventually, from one life into the next one.

We're often told throughout that there is no "good translation" for certain things, to the point that we wonder whether there are any good translations at all, or if everyone is simply stuck making do the best they can.

Matilde (Laura Espino) is a 20-something Brazilian woman working as a live-in maid for Lane (Suzie Shepherd), an American doctor with the demeanor of one of those high-tension rods that hold giant engineering projects up in the event of an earthquake.

Cleaning depresses Matilde, so she does as little as possible, preferring to spend her day composing jokes. She has a complicated relationship with humor; her late parents were the funniest people in her hometown and she came to the U.S. with vague aspirations of becoming a comedian, but comedy seems to be only one step removed from sorrow in her life.

Eventually she forms an oddball family unit with Lane's neurotic sister (Shelley Lynn Johnson), a compulsive cleaner who finds dusting a handy way to stave off an existential crisis, and Lane's cheerful, estranged doctor husband (Mark Manske) and the patient mistress (Annette Amelia Oliveira) he ran off with on a mad, carpe diem flight.

Giving you any more of the plot would run into spoiler territory. It's a very earnest production, directed by Erin Merritt, founder of the Bay Area's all-woman Shakespeare company Woman's Will (which, sadly, is no longer with us). It's not quite a comedy, although it is about comedy. If you're an English-only type, you'll go through the entire show never actually hearing a formal joke; they're always interrupted, flubbed, or told entirely in Portuguese.

Everything takes place in a Kuo-Hao Lo designed set of a blindingly white living room -- so white you could eat off anything, except that the person who lives in a house like that probably gave up eating a long time ago.

Manske and Oliveira are the best things about "The Clean House"; despite the two-timing involved in their romance, they're such broadly likable people and their chemistry so gratifying that you become envious. Their entrance 45 minutes in jolts the play to life after a slightly frigid first act, imbuing the story with humanity and combustibility.

But everything else about "The Clean House" is just a bit odd and uncomfortable, like a shoe a half size too small. You keep waiting for it to break in, but it never does. Espino seems aloof, and although she's supposed to be our central character, the play often seems to wish it could put her out to pasture.

Shepherd's breathless, squeaky delivery and restrained mania foster sympathy, but the part never really opens up. Johnson is engaging, but you could write her entire role out of the play and not lose much except run time. Together the two sisters are supposed to teach us something about how backwards and unsatisfying upper-class American life is, but the lesson feels flimsy and easy.

Ghostly captions frequently butt into the action, always to tell us something that we can plainly already see in the scene without explanation. And then there's the ending, which is heartfelt but also baffling, a weird enigma that pushes you out the door sans guidance and largely deprives everyone of a real sense of closure, because how in the hell are you even supposed to feel about something so elusively eccentric?

Maybe the answer depends on who you are. For our part, we ended up not feeling much at all.

"The Clean House" plays through March 6 at the Contra Costa Civic Theatre, 951 Pomona, in El Cerrito. For tickets and information, call 510-524-9132 or visit