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One hears the Hairspray at the Kennedy Center isn’t quite as flashy and grand as the one on Broadway. Heavens—next we’ll discover that the Washington Monument isn’t quite as tall as the Empire State Building.
Full disclosure: Having passed on the chance to see the New York production, I’m in no position to tell you why the tour that’s finally trudged into Washington three years after its Broadway debut is inferior. (Then again, it’s a calculus that rarely seems relevant.) I can tell you that the road version shimmies when it oughta, sparkles often enough, and smirks just enough to remind us that we’re watching a musical based on a John Waters flick. And that it sounded thoroughly shitty last Friday night. Honestly: A couple of spins through the cast album make Marc Shaiman’s giddy, gaudy score seem as unconventionally charming as Charm City itself, but the sound mix at the Opera House last week was so bad that it made an unintelligible hash out of whole stretches of the show.
Not quite all of it, of course. The detention-hall scene, where dance-mad pudge-pot Tracy Turnblad picks up some smooth new moves from a couple of black schoolmates, still plays, not least because Alan Mingo Jr. makes a sexy, smooth-moving Seaweed indeed. “(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs,” the number that sets up wicked ex– beauty queen Velma Von Tussle as Tracy’s adult, Establishmentarian nemesis, depends less on audible lyrics than on an actress willing to make a drag queen out of herself, and Susan Henley tosses her dignity gamely over the top. The scene there, as you may know, is the WZZT TV studio, where Tracy (the agreeable Keala Settle) has turned up to audition for Corny Collins’ weekly bandstand show and get herself noticed by local Elvis-wannabe Link Larkin (Serge Kushnier). But in a ’60s Baltimore dominated by Von Tussle types, fat girls and black kids need not apply for anything like equal time: “Would you swim in an integrated pool?” is one of the pre-audition interview questions, and you just know Tracy’s never been good at standardized tests.
Can love—and racial harmony—find a way? Can Tracy’s overweight, agoraphobic mom (a sweet and surprisingly subdued John Pinette in the Divine role) find her way out of the house? Well, it is a musical, and you’ve seen the movie. The stage adaptation, by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, keeps the story squarely on the sweet side of postmodern; Hairspray knows its rights and wrongs, its winners and losers, but it’s neither sugary-preachy about ’em nor ironically distanced as it lays ’em out. And on the way to interracial love (“I am now a checkerboard chick!” squeals Tracy’s friend Penny, who’s taken up with Seaweed) and general harmony, Shaiman serves up the most infectious pop-homage score Broadway’s seen in years: From the cheery “Good Morning Baltimore” to the love-addled Lesley Gore salute “I Can Hear the Bells” on through to the roof-raiser finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” Hairspray rocks—or at least it would if you could hear it. But at last Friday’s show, anyway, singers kept launching into solos that went unmiked (and were therefore swallowed by the decidedly miked but ill-mixed orchestra) until well into their second phrase. Dialogue passages got similarly chopped up, and forget any ensemble number that called for two cast members to trade lines. Half of Hairspray’s fun is in the Watersesque naughtiness of its lyrics, but they went begging last weekend—and performances that looked committed and energetic came off sounding fractured and flat. You may not be able to stop the beat, but you sure as hell can trip it up.
“Love,” says the pretty Brazilian in the mourning blacks, “isn’t clean….It’s dirty, like a good joke.”
And there’s The Clean House in small—all its sweet, generous philosophy summed up in an uncluttered little passage from playwright Sara Ruhl, a buzzed-about West Coaster making her Washington debut at Woolly Mammoth. There’s whimsy in her simile, and a slight, mischievous smile, and a frank assertion that the simplicities we chase aren’t nearly as good for us as we imagine they will be. It’s a script that could go sour or saccharine with equal ease—its unlikely characters could seem like a capricious author’s stick figures, its insistence on their redemption could come off as hopelessly naive, and its flirtations with the tropical woo-woo of magic realism could easily tip over into twee. But in this, the second production in its sleek new downtown digs, Woolly makes a case for the play as something pretty special—and for Ruhl as a writer worth listening to carefully.
The white-on-whiter-than living room in which we’ve gathered exists in what Ruhl calls “a metaphysical Connecticut,” in the painfully perfect home of a beautifully put-together doctor who’s having a bit of a bad month. Her name is Lane, and the aforementioned Brazilian, her live-in housekeeper Matilde, is too depressed to clean, and well, “We took her to the hospital and I had her medicated,” says Lane, played by a sublime Naomi Jacobson as a woman very much on the verge but so far no luck. “In the meantime,” Lane says as if it’s the least conceivable development imaginable, “I’ve been cleaning my house!”
Cue her sister, Virginia (Sarah Marshall, getting her reliably inventive quirk on), who’s got a bit of a cleaning thing. “If there were no dust to clean then there would be so much leisure time and so much thinking time and I would have to do something besides thinking,” she tells us all in one confessional rush, “and that thing might be to slit my wrists.” Clearly, she and Matilde are made for each other—and sure enough, The Clean House’s story involves a secret deal wherein Virginia cleans for her sister’s cleaning lady while Matilde pursues her dreamy, distracted quest for the perfect joke—until the fatal day upon which Lane’s husband leaves her for a patient and a near-hysterical Lane discovers the tidy little arrangement that’s been keeping everybody sane.
The almost too-cutesy setup is all but beside the point: Ruhl finds poignancies, it’s true, in the whys of Virginia’s obsession and the wherefores of Matilde’s wistfulness, but the play’s real arc is the one Lane travels in Act 2, after Mitchell Hébert’s Charles brings his enchanting new lady, Ana, home for an introduction. “I want to do things right from the beginning,” he says, looking guileless and puppyish and explaining that Jewish law requires a man to leave his wife if he discovers his bashert, or soul mate. Jacobson’s Lane responds with what can only be described as a series of escalating but rigidly controlled boggles, plus an inevitable observation—“You’re not Jewish”—but the play will insist that, yes, peace can be made, that forgiveness can be found, that charity, when one of this motley assembly suddenly needs the others, can put down roots even in a house scoured thoroughly clean of anything so messily complicated.
Woolly’s beautifully contained production keeps the sentimentalism in check, and director Rebecca Bayla Taichman treads gently around the places where Ruhl’s sense of the fantastical makes itself felt. Apples, when Charles and his paramour take Matilde picking, rain down in Lane’s sterile living room like little gifts, bringing a sense of something organic into her chill surroundings for the first time all night; at various points, when Matilde remembers the parents whose death is behind both her sadness and her search for the perfect joke, a laughing couple drifts by beyond the vast wall of windows; when Lane imagines Charles with Ana, they appear in her living room, where Matilde can somehow see them.
At South Coast Rep this past winter, director Kate Whoriskey underlined too many of these moments, pushing the play’s sense of the surreal farther than audiences were willing to follow and tipping its delicate balance toward mawkish fable. Taichman soft-pedals the same moments, and Woolly’s more intimate staging helps keep the whole business from getting lost in its own affectations.
The cast, crucially, never for a moment seems conscious of affectation. Franca Barchiesi, lithe and physically lyrical as a dancer, makes Ana every inch the warm, sensual salvation Ruhl imagines in her script. There is both mischief and melancholy in the eyes of Guenia Lemos’ quietly impish Matilde, and if Marshall maybe hasn’t discovered the gravity of Virginia’s nervous condition, she’s certainly discovered the humor in it. Hébert makes Charles the bad guy without making him in the least bit a bad guy, which is just what Ruhl is after, and Jacobson is, I can’t say enough, delicious. Together, they and their Woolly colleagues have made the impending Arena Stage premiere of Ruhl’s sprawling Passion Play, a Cycle a more tempting prospect than that California production had hinted at; if, come September, Molly Smith & Co. can meet this gifted writer with as much sense and sensitivity as their colleagues across town have, it could be a season-opener worth shouting about.CP