Off-Broadway Theater Review: HOUSE FOR SALE (The Duke on 42nd Street)

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by Sarah Taylor Ellis on October 26, 2012

in Theater-New York


My theatergoing companion left the Duke on 42nd Street last night with tears welling in her eyes. She spent much of the subway ride home taking deep breaths to recover from Transport Group’s House for Sale, adapted from Jonathan Franzen’s personal essay about selling his childhood house after his mother’s death.

My response was significantly less emotional. In fact, the production – adapted and directed by Daniel Fish (known for The Chocolate Factory’s A (radically condensed and expanded) SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I’LL NEVER DO AGAIN (after David Foster Wallace)) – felt like little more than a clunky experiment in staging a literary text.

Dissecting the show afterwards, my friend and I agreed that the truly affecting aspect of House for Sale was the story itself, published in Franzen’s 2007 essay collection The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History. Franzen wades through fraught family memories as he puts his childhood house on the market, ultimately settling for a lower value than its monetary and sentimental worth.

At the beginning of the essay, Franzen “depersonalizes” the house by stripping away all evidence of his family’s occupation of the space. “If somebody had asked me why it was also necessary, that same night, to pile the hundred-plus pictures on a table in the basement and to rip or slice or pry or slide each photo out of its frame, and then dump all the frames into shopping bags, and stow the shopping bags in cabinets, and shove all the photos into an envelope, so that nobody could see them – if Sarah Taylor Ellis’ Stage and Cinema review of HOUSE FOR SALE, Transport group at the Duke in NYCsomebody had pointed out my resemblance to a conqueror burning the enemy’s churches and smashing its icons – I would have had to admit that I was relishing my ownership of the house. I was the only person in the family who’d had a full childhood here,” he writes.

When delivered once, this monologue is striking. Ripping, slicing, prying, sliding: the words spill off the tongue with a violent urgency: a story that needs to be shared. Yet when delivered five times in a row by each of the company members (Rob Campbell, Lisa Joyce, Merritt Janson, Christina Rouner, and Michael Rudko) with varying inflections and tempi, the refrain tires and grates, exhausted of any emotion. You might be better off simply reading Franzen’s essay.

Sarah Taylor Ellis’ Stage and Cinema review of HOUSE FOR SALE, Transport group at the Duke in NYCDon’t get me wrong: I appreciate the concept for Daniel Fish’s theatrical adaptation. Fragmenting Franzen’s writing, the play aims to explore how the self is fragmented when a person loses a loved one. Laura Jellinek’s set suggests a funeral service that has been split open, with one wall lying flat on the stage, rows of chairs, a podium and an organ. The space grows cluttered with memories throughout the play, from the company’s ever-changing costumes (by Terese Wadden) to fragmentary video projections of Bonnie and Clyde and A Charlie Brown Christmas. Daniel Kluger’s sound design, coupled with Thomas Dunn’s lighting, makes for sharp shifts in action.

Sarah Taylor Ellis’ Stage and Cinema review of HOUSE FOR SALE, Transport group at the Duke in NYCColored lights cue each actor to speak lines from Franzen’s essay: sometimes individually and sometimes in canon with other actors, sometimes whispered and sometimes into a microphone, sometimes sung to Polly Pen’s original music. The play has its innovative moments, such as a rant about George W. Bush as Rob Campbell (Orange) drags a desperate Lisa Joyce (Red) across the stage by her microphone. Polly Pen’s smart music for voice and organ strikes a clever tone; the sale notice for the house, for instance, is set to a somber funeral dirge. On the whole, however, the theatrical choices rarely seem motivated.

Although the concept is strong, House for Sale comes off as an acting exercise that has yet to take coherent shape. The often-aimless experimentation detracts from the compelling heart of Franzen’s writing. Truth be told, I wish this talented company of actors had simply sat down and told me the story.

photos by Carol Rosegg

House for Sale
Transport Group at The Duke on 42nd Street in New York City
scheduled to to end on November 18, 2012
for tickets, call 646-223-3010or visit The Duke

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