Remember the food pyramid? With its big solid base layer made of bread, cereals, rice, and pasta? And then, at some point, how they switched things up on us and we all realized that we didn’t need nearly that many carbohydrates in our diets? Plays like Selina Fillinger’s Something Clean are the grains of the American-theater food pyramid: earnest, small-cast issue dramas that follow recognizable, contemporary, basically well-meaning characters through tough, topical situations. Usually there’s a couch or a bed. Pop music and cell phones. People wear sensible shoes. It’s not that these plays are uniform in quality — last year, American Son presented a particularly painful example of one, and Something Clean is no American Son (though both plays circle around an absent character described by the latter’s title). It’s solid and fluid, predictable but not monotonous. Its perhaps inevitable moments of contrivance feel mostly forgivable, and in Margot Bordelon’s swift, no-frills production, the show’s three actors all eventually ease into themselves, delivering sensitive, well-observed performances. And the results are — fine. We’ve built our national theater on a foundation of fine. But is the earnest, small-cast, contemporary issue drama truly anyone’s favorite kind of play?
The contemporary issue in Something Clean is sexual assault, but Fillinger flips the script, showing us the aftermath of a campus rape through the eyes of the perpetrator’s parents. The delicate, furrow-browed Kathryn Erbe, who has more than 140 episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent under her belt, is here on the other side of the justice system. She plays Charlotte Walker, a suburban mom whose star point-guard son, Kai, has just begun a six-month sentence for a crime she can’t imagine him committing. There are echoes of the Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner in the way Kai — a privileged, athletic white kid — is described, in his relatively lenient sentence (“If he was a person of color, that kid woulda been locked up,” Charlotte is told), and in the arguments his parents made at his trial. “A few moments of poor judgment do not erase everything a person was, or define what he will be,” Charlotte told the jury. Though by the time we meet her, she no longer seems certain. She’s tense and nervous and doesn’t want to be touched. She stares at her husband, Doug (Daniel Jenkins), like she’s never seen him before. And she can’t stop cleaning. Rubber gloves and Tide to Go pen in hand, she shows up at a sexual-assault resource center, gives her name simply as Charlie, and asks to volunteer.
“I’m really good at tackling stains, any stains,” Charlotte tells Joey (Christopher Livingston), the cheerful young man who coordinates the agency’s volunteers, leads intimacy workshops, stuffs goody bags, and generally keeps the whole place running. Joey and Charlotte are worlds apart: She’s a white housewife from the suburbs who blinks confusedly at the word “cis” and bridles at the notion that she’s experienced any sort of “trauma.” He’s black and gay, he was raped by a neighbor as a child, and he survived homelessness after leaving home at 16. But now they’re both here, making fundraising phone calls and filling paper bags with strawberry condoms — and, in their own ways, burying their pain and confusion in work.
“We’re big on new beginnings here,” says Joey kindly, but it’s clear that he thinks he’s speaking to another victim, another survivor. Though Charlotte’s secret — and her betrayal by omission of Joey’s trust — will eventually and explosively out, Something Clean is about examining and pushing at the boundaries of our own compassion. Charlotte, the play argues, is also a victim — and, by extension, though we might not like to think it, so is Kai. They too have been hurt by the standard practices of a system that links sex with shame and power, that avoids and humiliates rather than educates. “Did you ever have a serious conversation about sex with him?” Charlotte asks Doug, on the verge of tears. “Did you?” her husband replies. Neither can answer. “I think I called them his ‘private parts,’” Charlotte muses to Joey, trying to remember how she handled talking about the body when her son was a child. Then her eyes glisten with panic as she seeks the enlightened Joey’s absolution: “‘Private parts.’ That’s okay. Right?”
Charlotte is consumed by the fear that something she did, or didn’t do, caused all of this, and the thoughtful Erbe effectively juggles the character’s blend of guilty terror, gentle resolve, and desire to learn. Her son’s actions have rearranged the very molecules of the world around her, and she navigates once familiar spaces tentatively and with a slight squint, like a blind person whose sight is suddenly restored on a too bright day. She’s best in her scenes with Joey, and the excellent, agile Livingston infuses the play with vital energy as the pair form a playful, increasingly affectionate friendship. If some of Fillinger’s ideas feel forced or a little trite — Charlotte’s shy attempts to bring back the spark in her marriage, or her encounter with a very forthcoming campus policeman (also Jenkins) behind a dumpster at her son’s school, or the story’s final moments of easy nature metaphor — the generous, meticulous buildup of feeling between the mother who’s lost her son and the son who left his mother is the play’s real backbone, and it works. Livingston is giving a sharp, layered, relaxed performance that tenses up at just the right moments. His recitation of self-affirmations when he feels panic encroaching — “It wasn’t my fault and I’m the shit, I’m rad, I know I’m rad,” he chants rhythmically, his breathing quickening — rings with bittersweet truth.
Ultimately, the play’s most daring suggestion in our current climate — where “emotional labor” has become something anyone who’s hurting can reasonably and rightfully refuse to perform — is that none of us are free of the human responsibility of empathy. “I just don’t want you to feel like you have to take care of me,” Joey tells Charlotte, carefully backtracking after opening up to her and preparing to use the lingo of the moment: “That’s not your job.” But it is. It’s everyone’s job. And just because people like Kai fail to do their job — and their failures have terrible, lasting effects — doesn’t absolve the rest of us from doing ours. There’s no such thing as a clean slate, and the road of kindness, humility, and honesty isn’t always a tidy one, but it’s the only one worth taking.
Something Clean is at the Roundabout’s Harold & Miriam Steinberg Center through June 30.