Jonathan Franzen, from Page to Stage: House of Sale Review
Within the first minutes of the Transport Group Theatre Company’s “House for Sale,” billed as the first work by Jonathan Franzen (Freedom, The Corrections) to be adapted for the stage, I suddenly remembered an unhappy experience I hadn’t thought of for years. As the temporary host of a WBAI radio program, I had asked one of my guests, the editor of an anthology of “transgressive” writing, whether during the broadcast she would read a passage that I had found especially funny from the collection. She gave me a look that seemed to say “Why this story?” But she readily agreed, and I figured I had misread her expression. During the show, however, she read the selection very slowly, word by painful word, as if she had just come from the dentist, guaranteeing that not a single listener anywhere in the tri-state area could possibly find anything remotely amusing in these zombie paragraphs.
“House for Sale,” Jonathan Franzen’s first essay in The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History, one of his seven published books, tells the story of his return to Missouri after his mother’s death to sell the house he grew up in. He writes about the minutia of packing up the house, and interviewing three real estate agents, but also digresses into a kind of portrait of his mother and memories of his sullen childhood interactions with his parents, especially a closing scene at Disney World.
Read it, and the story has an odd charm. It is often funny and, despite Franzen’s scrupulously unsentimental tone, at times affecting. There are moments of insight. Before his mother had died, she had meticulously assessed the house, estimating its value at $350,000. Franzen writes:
“This figure was more than ten times what she and my father had paid for the place in 1965. The house not only constituted the bulk of her assets but was by far the most successful investment she’d ever made. I wasn’t a ten times happier person than my father, her grandchildren weren’t ten times better educated than she was. What else in her life had done even half so well as real estate?”
The Transport Group has been around for more than a decade, responsible for such highly-praised productions of late as “See Rock City and Other Destinations,” and “Queen of the Mist,” as well as a recent revival of “Boys in the Band” and the Broadway musical “Lysistrata Jones.” It is thus thoroughly baffling how completely its adaptation of “House for Sale” misfires.
Five performers sit in chairs at some remove from the audience, taking turns reciting Franzen’s essay, more or less verbatim, although some lines are suddenly repeated four or five times, and the actors also recite transcripts of various Youtube videos about the Disney character Goofy that are inserted willy-nilly. Occasionally one performer or another will change into or out of a costume. One or another will play the piano. But mostly they just recite. There is no discernible effort to communicate the tone or even the meaning of Franzen’s sentences, no real focus for the audience’s attention.
The set by Laura Jellinek seems similarly unfocused. There is a screen that for most of the 80 minutes of the show presents a still image of Faye Dunaway. This eventually becomes a film clip, and includes other images, such as Mickey Mouse. There is a kind of a plank that separates the audience from the actors that, on closer inspection, could be a horizontal representation of a wall in a movie theater lobby: On top of a patterned wallpaper, there is an Exit sign, a flat screen TV, and a row of five colored bulbs. There are several similar light fixtures throughout the set.
Those bulbs turn out to have great significance to this production, and not just because lighting designer Thomas Dunn uses them for some distracting visual effects. Each color corresponds to one of the actors. When one color is lit, the actor who has been assigned that color reads the next passage in the story. When the orange light went on, it was Rob Campbell, the red light, Lisa Joyce, and so on.
As we are told in the program (which is not distributed until the performance is over), the show is “cued live.” In other words, the order of the colored lights changes at each performance, meaning the performers don’t know precisely which part of Franzen’s story they will be reciting until they see the light. This sounds like a stimulating challenge for the performers. It is a challenge completely devoid of stimulation for the audience.
Indeed, it is hard to understand the point of just about any of director Daniel Fish’s choices. Some of the stagecraft might be intriguing in and of itself, given a different context, a different text — say, perhaps, one more familiar and thus more open to deconstruction, or one more avant-garde on the page and thus more fitting for an experimental treatment on the stage. At the Duke, it is as if somebody gave the directive to make Franzen’s “House for Sale” as inaccessible as possible.
House for Sale
at the Duke on 42nd Street
By Jonathan Franzen
Adapted for the stage and directed by Daniel Fish
Original music by Polly Pen
Scenic design by Laura Jellinek, costume design by Terese Wadden, lighting design by Thomas Dunn, sound design by Daniel Kluger, video projections by Andrew Lazarow.
Cast: Rob Campbell (orange light), Lisa Joyce (red), Meritt Janson (green), Christina Rouner (blue), Michael Rudko (white)
House for Sale is set to run through November 18
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