Black Box Theatre
Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 West 46th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 30, $30
Kathryn Erbe is riveting as a mother obsessed with scrubbing away all remnants of a horrible crime in Something Clean, Selina Fillinger’s fierce yet sensitive new drama continuing at the Roundabout Underground’s Black Box Theatre through June 30. Erbe is Charlotte, a married mother of a son who is in prison for committing a despicable, if unexpected, crime. Charlotte spends much of the play cleaning — she carries around yellow gloves, Neosporin, and Band-Aids, at the ready to wipe away the recent past and protect any wounds; she also meticulously vacuums and does the dishes and the laundry over the course of ninety minutes. In fact, the play opens with her explaining, “I can clean toilets. Bathrooms, storage rooms, clothing, whatever you need. I’m really good at tackling stains, any stains.” Charlotte is volunteering at the local Center for Sexual Assault Prevention and Intervention, where she meets Joey (Christopher Livingston), a survivor who runs the place and befriends her, although she does not tell him her full name or who her son is. She also does not tell her husband, Doug (Daniel Jenkins), that she is working there as the previously happy couple deals with the traumatic strain their family is going through, each handling things their own private way.
As she grows more distant to Doug, who travels often for business and is worried about Charlotte’s state of mind, she becomes much closer to Joey, treating him almost like a son. She desperately tries to keep the two parts of her life separate; Joey calls her Charly, while Doug calls her Lottie, intimately and uniquely cutting her name in half. Reid Thompson’s set highlights that difference: The audience sits on the two horizontal sides of the stage, which features a storage room at the center on one side and Doug and Charlotte’s bedroom and kitchen on the other. In the middle is a round table that exists in both worlds, a shared space destined to bring it all together. Margot Bordelon’s (Eddie and Dave, Too Heavy for Your Pocket) astute direction and Jiyoun Chang’s deeply expressive lighting help guide the audience as they watch the play unfold in the style of a tennis match as the action goes back and forth between the two locations, in addition to a gaspworthy surprise.
Erbe (The Grapes of Wrath, The Father), Jenkins (Oslo, Big River), and Livingston (Wilder Gone, Party People) are terrific in what is essentially a series of poignant duets, but it’s Fillinger’s (Faceless, The Armor Plays: Cinched/Strapped) writing that stands out. The Chicago-based actress and playwright, who graduated from Northwestern only three years ago, shows a remarkably perceptive understanding of human nature, especially regarding marriage and parenthood, for someone so young. A scene late in the play when Doug and Charlotte take a stark look at their life is so beautifully written, so insightful and observant, that it brought tears to my eyes. Something Clean takes on several hot-button issues and approaches them with touching grace and intelligent humor, elevating it above so many social justice plays, making it about so much more than wiping up a mess or sweeping problems under the carpet.