Playwright: Sarah Ruhl. At: Remy Bumppo Theatre Company at the Greenhouse, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 773-404-7336; www.remybumppo.org; $42.50-$52.50. Runs through: Jan. 11
Sometimes a play needs to be separated from its authoror, to be more specific, from audiences' expectations of the author. How many years passed before Neil Simon was perceived as more than a-laugh-a-minute, Beth Henley as more than Dixie-ditzy stereotypes and Tracy Letts as more than bloody criminal creeps? In 2004, Sarah Ruhl was the go-to playwright for misty musings inspired by classical myths expressed in estrogenic abstractions. Ten years later, theaters of limited space and budget have dispensed with the neo-expressionist clutter of earlier productions to zero in on the lessons to be found within the author's enigmatic presentation.
Doctor Lane is a starchy hard-working surgeon who declares, "I didn't go to medical school to clean my own house." Her Brazilian maid, Matilde, has been hired to clean, but instead spends her time thinking up jokes. Lane's sister, Virginia, loves to clean; she considers it her philanthropic calling, in factand begs for an opportunity to share in the household maintenance. Then Lane discoverslong after the servants do, of coursethat her husband has fallen in love with the elderly Argentinian patient for whom he has recently performed a mastectomy, Virginia scatters the contents of a potted plant over the floor and Matilde proposes the joke that proves the adage about dying being easier than comedy.
Theatergoers accustomed to surface realism were puzzled at the play's premiere, labeling its ambiguities "magic realism" based on its introduction of two Latinas into a New England milieu as white as its décor. Remy Bumppo's playbill provides a study guide for the still befuddled, but the theme of Ruhl's sermon should be both immediate and obvious to savvy playgoers in 2014: The world is messy, love is messy, living is messy, and laughter provides us a temporary illusion of order before the Grim Janitor comes to wipe up after us forever. As Matilde says, "A good joke cleans your insides outsomewhere between an angel and a fart."
The actors, assembled by director Ann Filmer, arrive bearing extensive testimony to their expertise at conveying subtextual subtleties on the level of Stoppard and Pinter, but show themselves equally adept at allowing emotions to gush through the very pores of their characters' increasingly thin skins. Adults taking their first baby steps toward recognition of, acceptance of and, finally, defiance of cosmic absurdity can often appear ridiculous, but what better definition of "dying with dignity" can you imagine than choosing your own moment to, literally, have your last laugh?