House for Sale
nytheatre.com review by Jason Jacobs
October 21, 2012
When I heard that Transport Group’s new production was an adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s essay, House For Sale, I was ready to buy. In this chapter from his 2006 memoir The Discomfort Zone, Franzen explores returning to his childhood home after his mother’s death to sort through her possessions and put the house on the market. Daniel Fish’s adaptation avoids a head-on approach: one that might portray Franzen as a character and dramatize his interactions with the people and places he describes. Instead, Fish employs a host of experimental strategies and offers an autonomous performance piece with an esoteric approach to the material. I respect the choice, and I’d engage any format that expands upon the feelings and ideas so eloquently expressed by Franzen; but at the end of this performance, I found myself struggling to understand what the piece is saying.
Franzen treats his subjects with equals parts criticism and empathy, and he is as uncompromising with himself as anyone. Franzen speaks from the perspective of the favorite child who has outgrown his family and feels the loss in rejecting his parents’ values and aspirations. As he purges the house of family photographs and furniture, Franzen compares himself to a Viking. But these objects, and the house itself, have a way of evoking the lost mother and stirring feelings that are not so easy to conquer. He realizes how his parents disappointed him, and how he in turn, disappointed them – especially now, as he fails to find a buyer who values the house as dearly as his mother did.
In staging the essay, Fish has devised a controlled experiment. He breaks the writing into sections of differing lengths – sometimes paragraphs, sometimes sentences or even words – and distributes the text among an ensemble of five actors. The first-person singular narrator is exchanged for a modern chorus, representing a range of ages, male and female, albeit uniformly Caucasian and, by appearances, upper-middle class. Each actor is associated with a colored light bulb, which cues their speaking and sometimes cues actors to overlap or repeat. Each performance is cued live, assigning different sections to different actors every night. The delivery and distribution of the text feels intentionally random.
As the actors recite the text, they engage in a range of activities, often independent from what they are saying: slouching in chairs, running in place, crawling across platforms, watching the flat-screen television, lying on the floor. They make onstage clothing changes, and while Fish’s treatment resists characterization and relationships, Terese Wadden’s costumes evoke middle-class suburbia and family. In blue pajamas Michael Rudko suggests a father, while Lisa Joyce in jogging shorts might be a younger sister. Some of the text is set to music by Polly Pen; played by cast member Merritt Johnson on an electric organ, these songs sound like church hymns.
Laura Jellinek’s set provides an unspecific environment: a large open space lined with folding chairs, littered with microphones and wires. An electronic organ sits in the middle of the room, a flat screen TV lies face-up on a long platform that divides the performance space from the audience, a potted plant seems to have been left incongruously on a chair. Everywhere you look, you see strips of the colored bulbs that cue the actors. A large section of the back wall is used for Andrew Lazarow’s video projections, with images loosely affiliated with the text. A freeze-frame of Faye Dunaway gazing at the audience for the first half of the show gives a passing reference to Bonnie and Clyde enlarged importance.
There are a few places where I felt the stage business illuminated the writing. The piece ends with a moving memory of a visit to Disneyworld, when Franzen as a sullen teenager dashed his parents’ joy by refusing to express any appreciation for the trip. As the actor (Rob Campbell at the performance I attended) delivered this speech while donning a Minnie Mouse character costume--complete with the oversized head--the image suggested a mixture of manufactured happiness, disappointment, and loss that complimented Franzen’s prose. Otherwise, many of the staging choices seem obscurely connected to the source material. When actors raced through monologues, mumbled, or droned in monotone, the text seemed more like an obstacle they must overcome than something they are trying to serve.
Like the late Mrs. Franzen’s house, this approach is bound to appeal to some tastes and not to others. Audiences interested in deconstruction and disparity between the text and staging may feel right at home with Fish’s creation; but if you’re hoping for a clearer, more emotionally felt interpretation of Franzen’s writing, you will need to keep looking.