NEW YORK—It isn’t often an inanimate object becomes the center of a story, but that’s exactly what happens in Jonathan Franzen’s House For Sale, as presented by The Transport Group.
Indeed, at times the house seems more real than the main character—five actors split up what is essentially a one-person show and first-person narrative. Daniel Fish both directed and adapted the work for the stage.
The house of the title is located in Webster Groves, Mo., where it’s been standing empty since the family matriarch passed away. Now the youngest of her three siblings, who just turned 40, has come back to arrange for its sale.
As soon as the first actor finishes imparting this information, a second actor repeats the exact same story, followed by a third, then a fourth, and finally a fifth. While the words are all the same, the speed in which they are delivered changes from person to person, as does the emphasis and cadence.
The actors (Rob Campbell, Lisa Joyce, Merritt Janson, Christina Rouner, and Michael Rudko) are not identified by name or character, but rather by colors (Orange, Red, Green, Blue, and White). The colors correspond to a series of similarly hued lights situated throughout the playing area which blink on and off throughout the show, serving as visual cues.
Director Fish has come up with an interesting concept, but seems so enamored with the technical aspects of the piece that he neglects the human element. Because there are five actors playing the same role, each interpreting it differently, it becomes hard to identify with the character they collectively portray.
Indeed, it takes a while before one even knows the gender of said character, eventually identified as male.
With the lack of a definitive persona on which to hang the story, the play takes on more of an existential and analytical quality, as the house moves back to center stage.
The actors describe how the house represented a sort of anchor for those who lived there. The mother took great pride in caring for the structure. As for the father, he saw the house as more of a chore, due to its constantly required upkeep.
But both parents were eventually glad to do the labor involved, noting that when the time came, their improvements would help “sell the house,” as they put it.
The selling of the house is the main focus of the story. It becomes a question of timing, staging, choosing the right real estate agent—which the youngest son may not have done—and trying to come to terms with the reality that what one thinks something is worth is not always what the market will bear.
The acting, while not particularly standout, is adequate. Unfortunately, the direction is often disjointed. The monologues are handled well, but the switching from one actor to the next is rather awkward.
In addition, the narrative is frequently interrupted by commentaries from tram employees at Disney World, who impart information in a chronic singsong and happy manner. These sequences are cute and in fact sound realistic, but there seems to be no reason for them being part of the play.
Their explanation is forthcoming, but said information doesn’t come until the very end. Had it been introduced earlier, it might have made these moments seem more than simply nonsensical diversions.
The Disney World material also gets in the way at a critical juncture. After going through an engrossing explanation of the selling of the house and how the mother would have reacted to it (which would have been a better and more powerful ending), the play goes back to Disney World. That information is finally tied into the main storyline.
However, the way this last scene is staged—which includes having each of the actors give a last speech and then exiting the stage—stretches the entire sequence out too long. Ultimately, the effect hurts the final emotional impact of the work.
House For Sale has numerous qualities in its favor. It tells a universal tale of growing up and facing generational conflict, and it nicely shows the balancing act most people have at one time in their lives—that of trying to satisfy the needs of their parents while handling their own.
More importantly, the source material is strong and compelling. It’s just that with regard to direction, the entire presentation isn’t executed all that well.
The Duke on 42nd Street
229 West 32nd Street
Tickets: 646-223-3010 or visit www.transportgroup.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Closes: Nov. 18
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.
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