Sueli Rocha in Glue Trap. Photo by Dixie Sheridan.
BOTTOM LINE: Acclaimed Brazilian actress Sueli Rocha relates memorable episodes from her experience as an apartment cleaner in New York City.
When I heard the premise of Glue Trap, I was fascinated: a successful Brazilian actress immigrates to New York City, where she supports herself by cleaning apartments. Along the way she encounters myriad unusual situations, which she responds to in her own "inimitable, highly theatrical style." I expected a glamorous Latin spitfire telling torrid tales of the sexual secrets of rich New Yorkers. What I got was something far more interesting.
From the moment that the lovely, middle-aged Sueli Rocha stepped onstage and offered a friendly "Hello everyone," I knew that I was in the presence of not only an accomplished actress, but an extraordinarily open, warm human being. I believed her implicitly when she said of her cleaning clients, "I know the soul of each one of them. They trust me and end up emptying their hearts to me." Rocha's empathy for her fellow human beings suffuses her stories with genuine feeling. She lovingly and humorously inhabits each character she describes. Mostly, however, she is herself, relating her unique observations and perceptions.
Her clients include all types, including her favorites: gay men. They are often "extravagant, rich and famous, successful…" but Rocha never name-drops. She is discreet, even detached as she observes their idiosyncratic behavior. After watching an old, arthritic maid kneel at the feet of her young employer, she wryly notes that "slavery isn't over yet."
Two stories involve secret troves of sex toys, including a multi-colored collection of dildos. But Rocha isn't interested in merely titillating tales. Her purpose is much deeper: to reveal what even the most dissimilar people have in common. "In a way," she muses, "we are all looking for that someone or that something to occupy the emptiness in our lives, even if that way is not totally straight."
Rocha's compassion is put to the test in several stories: a harrowing encounter with a hot-tempered fashion photographer leaves her feeling humiliated and resentful, and she warns the man's wife of his potential for violence. In another situation she feels morally obligated to report an abusive babysitter. Graphic depictions of illness and death also figure into her experience. Rocha discovers one client dead in her apartment where "there was a horrible stench, flies flying over her head." The funniest story is almost as grisly, and involves Rocha carrying two dead dogs in a shopping bag on the subway.
The final tale is a whimsical fantasy based on her encounter with a mouse caught in a glue trap. Although charming, I don't think it's the most satisfying way to end a show full of compelling reality.
Apart from some effective video projections, the production is quite simple. The set consists of a table and chair. In one scene Rocha folds laundry and in another she drapes the table and chair with sheets; otherwise there are no props. The lighting serves only to illuminate the actress as she moves from area to area on the stage. Rocha's performance is similarly subtle and restrained. She and director Nena Inoue have wisely chosen to avoid histrionics and let the material speak for itself. Few morals are offered; we are left to draw our own.
The entire show lasts only 50 minutes, and I would have liked more material about Rocha herself. What drew her to New York in the first place? What keeps her here? (She doesn't appear to have done any acting in the U.S.). If New York really is a glue trap—"the more you move, the more stuck you get," how does that feel to her? One other quibble: Rocha's Brazilian accent is sometimes hard to understand.
Ultimately I was moved by Rocha's generous take on her fellow man (and woman). She finds humanity and humor in life's darkest moments. If you're like me, you'll be left wanting more.
(Glue Trap runs until November 7 at the Axis Theater, 1 Sheridan Square. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8pm. Tickets are $15 ($12 for students and seniors) and are available at www.axiscompany.org or by calling TheaterMania at 212-352-3101 or 866-811-4111.)