Off-Central Players’ “Something Clean” is an episodic puzzle that unfolds through short vignettes. We gradually realize that Charlotte (Debbie Yones) may have always been OCD, but in the wake of her invisible son’s rape conviction, her fragmented psyche puts her yellow latex gloves into overdrive. The toll of collateral damage on Doug (Alan Mohney, Jr.) and Charlotte’s crumbling marriage is incalculable.
They push their way through therapists like musical chairs.
The cast is flawless. You sense the intimacy between Yones and Mohoney, a real couple representing the parents of a white college athlete serving time for an on-campus rape of a non-white woman. Charlotte needs an outlet to atone for her parental guilt, so she secretly volunteers at a sexual abuse crisis center run by Troy Brooks (Joey) who is the perfect comforting presence as a young, gay, abuse counselor. black who befriends her. But she is reluctant to give her name for fear of being linked to her son’s high-profile case. Call me “Charlie”. But “do I have to have a name tag?” As they fill goody bags with “strawberry condoms with vanilla lube”, Charlie laughs with Joey that “no one wants to have sex over a milkshake”. Joey shares the shocking and shameful statistic that 60,000 children are molested every year. He prefers to call them, including himself, survivors rather than victims. What happens, Joey asks, when you “go to school with your predator three times a week?” Joey shares his experience of abuse at age nine and despite a cheerful sense of poise that gives Charlotte hope, he offers that “there are still days when I’m not well.”
“Something of own” in the players outside the center
The playwright Fillinger alludes to societal issues that touch on the subject in question, but which remain essentially unexplored. Why does alcohol abuse seem built into the college experience, especially within the fraternity ranks? Have we failed our sons (and therefore ourselves) by neglecting to confront an epidemic of anger, entitlement and sexual violence? (Looking at you, Brett Kavanaugh). What about the racism inherent in a legal system where privileged white men (like his son Kai) get a slap on the wrist for six months, while Joey reminds Charlie that a black man can count on decades . These issues are only touched upon in passing as the play focuses on collateral damage within a family and a marriage.
How does a family experience such trauma? What combination of denial, guilt and rage does it take to destroy a household, a marriage or simply lead to a personal implosion? What hope do victims have when the focus is on whether a “good boy”‘s life is ruined because he was a little drunk and had “a few moments of bad judgment?”
Director Ward Smith showed himself, especially in Stageworks’ “American Son,” as a subtle actor and champion of “less is more.” In an intimate theater like Studio Grand Central, he’s obviously trained in restraint. We feel like a fly on the wall hearing intimate conversations of everyday life in the kitchen, office, or bedroom. Everything is carefully calibrated for the space. Unfortunately, the pieces of this puzzle gradually reveal deep visceral trauma. Charlotte’s rubber gloves and her obsessive cleaning are just the outward manifestation of her inner horror, much like Lady Macbeth’s “out, damned spot”!
One of the standouts of the 85-minute non-intermission piece is director Smith’s taut sound design. Its brief transitions and intermittent underlining reinforce the ensuing emotional fragmentation. Some of the glorious scores echo the bass slaps and mouth slaps we know from “Seinfeld,” other times it’s jarring, choppy woodwinds. It’s part of the essential engine that propels the episodic storyline forward as it provides hints of the emotional tenor of the scene to follow, from echo and percussion to a soft saxophone over a few piano chords.
Charlie and Joey’s friendship grows to a surprising climax when unspoken truths collide.
And, while Fillinger has ostensibly set up the flash moments that lead to the quick ending, it’s a little too convenient. The actors do a superb job, but the script lacks the punch that could come from earlier developments. Perhaps a Laura Linney or Mary-Louise Parker could conjure up extra-textual pain for a cathartic moment as subplots collide and unravel, but Mrs. Yones is left hanging with a neat conclusion that leaves the audience without further insight into the important issues raised regarding parental guilt, racial injustice, and marital implosion under stress. Even so, it’s an interesting ride that raises far too many uncomfortable questions that our culture is still ill-equipped to address.