Can a well-written autobiographical essay be translated into a vital theater piece? In the case of “House for Sale,” Daniel Fish’s adaption of Jonathan Franzen’s insightful examination of selling his childhood Missouri home after his mother’s death, the answer is unfortunately no. While the 85-minute piece, presented by the innovative Transport Group, has a few compelling moments, Fish fails to find sufficiently dramatic theatrical equivalents for most of Franzen’s thoughtful points.
In the essay, published in Franzen’s 2007 collection “The Discomfort Zone,” the author details his complicated relationship with his parents and their beloved house as he strips it of personal belongings, hires a flashy realtor, and eventually has to settle for a low selling price. The central theme leads him to digressions on the general state of the American economy, income inequality, Hurricane Katrina, and what a residence tells us about the person who lives there. There are many brilliant observations in the text, but what reads well doesn’t necessarily play well.
Instead of employing a conventional dramatic structure with a single narrator and some semblance of a story line, Fish has made the head-scratching choice of taking an abstract approach. The cast consists of five actors, identified only by the colors of light bulbs that are placed throughout Laura Jellinek’s funeral parlor–like set. When an actor’s corresponding light snaps on, it’s his or her turn to speak. The program notes that the assignment of the text is spontaneous and varies from night to night. That may be a challenging acting exercise, but the gimmick doesn’t add to our understanding of Franzen’s ambivalent emotions about his family.
There are many odd sequences. The evening begins with each player reciting the same long opening passage, each going faster than the last. By the time we get to number five, the words have become gibberish. This wouldn’t be so bad if the trick was only tried once, but another passage is given the same treatment, slowing the show down again. In one bizarre vignette, a performer is literally dragged across the stage as she rants about the middle class having to pull the weight of the lightly taxed rich. Occasionally, these weird juxtapositions do work. At the conclusion, an actor dons a Minnie Mouse costume complete with enormous headpiece and relates a story of a disastrous Disney World outing when Franzen was 15. The sad anecdote of a discontented family coming out of the mouth of an absurdly happy, waving cartoon character provides a striking and touching irony.
At the performance attended, Rob Campbell delivered the final Disney monologue with the right combination of regret, self-deprecation, and slight humor. Presumably, different actors will render it—along with the rest of the script—at subsequent performances. Lisa Joyce endows her readings with a welcome frantic energy, while Michael Rudko lends a mature gravity. Christina Rouner and Merritt Janson, along with the rest of the cast, do their best to convey the subtext of this dysfunctional family’s emotional and economic meltdown, but they’re hampered by Fish’s pretentiousness. Final verdict: No sale.
Presented by Transport Group, in association with Shawn and Rob Flowers, at the Duke on 42nd St., 229 W. 42nd St., NYC. Oct. 24–Nov. 18. (646) 223-3010, www.dukeon42.org, or www.transportgroup.org. Casting by Jack Doulin.
Critic’s Grade: D