'Something Clean': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Kathryn Erbe and Christopher Livingston in 'Something Clean'
Resonates with emotional authenticity.
6/30/2019

A middle-aged couple deals with the emotional fallout of their college-age son's imprisonment for a sex crime in Selina Fillinger's drama featuring Kathryn Erbe.

Selina Fillinger's drama concerns the emotional aftermath of a sexual assault. The play neither deals with the perpetrator nor the survivor; the latter, we learn early on, is the preferred term rather than "victim." Nonetheless, the crime does have its victims, in the form of the aggressor's anguished parents. Their grief, and their guilt, form the heart of the deeply affecting Something Clean, world-premiering at off-Broadway's Roundabout Underground.

As the play begins, fifty-something wife and mother Charlotte (Kathryn Erbe, Law & Order, Criminal Intent) volunteers to work at an inner-city sexual assault counseling center. Charlotte doesn’t have any special qualifications for the position, other than that she's a compulsive cleaner who, as she puts it, is "really good at tackling stains ... any stains." She doesn't reveal to the center's cheerfully friendly 24-year-old gay employee Joey (Christopher Livingston, delivering a breakout performance) that the chief stain she's trying to erase is the stigma of being the mother of a college-age son currently serving a prison sentence for an unspecified but apparently notorious crime of sexual abuse.

When Charlotte becomes skittish at the idea of wearing a name tag, Joey reassures her that it's not a requirement. "We're big on new beginnings here," he gently tells her. The two quickly form a strong bond, with Charlotte treating Joey with motherly affection and eventually learning that he was a survivor of assault by a neighbor beginning when he was 9 years old.

Charlotte keeps her work at the center a secret from her husband Doug (Daniel Jenkins), who is dealing with his pain by burying himself in work. It's clear that the trauma of their son's crime has clearly affected both the emotional and physical intimacy of their marriage.

The playwright displays a keen ability for well-drawn characterizations and astute, frequently darkly comic dialogue in her concise drama. The metaphorical aspect of Charlotte's compulsive cleanliness is laid on too thickly, but it does result in a pair of memorable scenes in which she pathetically attempts to clean the dumpster, near a universe fraternity house, where her son's crime occurred. In the first, she encounters a campus security guard (Jenkins, doubling) who warns her of the dangers of being in the area alone at night before tentatively inquiring if she's available. Returning to the scene a second time, she meets a frat boy (Livingston, again) whose aggressive, drunken behavior reminds her all too vividly of her son.

For a good portion of its running time, the play is composed of short, staccato scenes, alternating between Charlotte's interactions with Joey and Doug, that don't have sufficient room to breathe. The writing eventually settles down, however, resulting in more drawn-out episodes that provide the strongest moments. Fillinger admirably refrains from spelling out everything too clearly, resulting in an intriguing ambiguity, even while making clear that pain is best healed through strong emotional connections.

Under the sensitive direction of Margot Bordelon, the actors deliver nuanced performances that fully convey their characters' angst without over-emoting. Erbe is quietly touching as the guilt-ridden Charlotte; Jenkins hits every note perfectly as the husband/father repressing his feelings; and Livingston oozes charisma as the outgoing but still traumatized Joey. The play's staging proves slightly awkward, with set designer Reid Thompson struggling to delineate three separate locales in the cramped playing area. But the emotions on display always ring true.

Venue: Black Box Theater in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, New York
Cast: Kathryn Erbe, Daniel Jenkins, Christopher Livingston
Playwright: Selina Fillinger
Director: Margot Bordelon
Set designer: Reid Thompson
Costume designer: Valerie Therese Bart
Lighting designer: Jiyoung Chang
Music and sound designer: Palmer Hefferan
Presented by: Roundabout Theatre Company