Tickets for House for Sale, director Daniel Fish’s gnomic adaptation of a Jonathan Franzen essay, range from $45 to $65. Is this a reasonable asking price? Certainly many shows have much higher initial offerings. Besides, it has an impeccable location—the Duke on 42nd Street—high ceilings, good square footage, and plentiful surface charms. The piece concerns Franzen’s attempts to ready his deceased mother’s Missouri house for the market, though it also sidetracks into childhood reminiscences and a self-flagellating Hurricane Katrina digression. (It lacks a built-in dishwasher, but really what do you expect for $45?)
Considered as pure prose, the essay “House for Sale” combines Franzen’s vivid, textural detail with a queasy emotional palette. In his efforts to order his mother’s estate, the narrator finds himself drinking hard, making a dubious realtor selection, and behaving oddly towards his mother’s ornaments and mementoes. He writes of denuding the house of all snapshots, observing, “if somebody 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.”
A monologue would seem the likeliest way to transform this narration into a play. Or instead, Franzen, the realtor, and various family members could have become characters in a more traditional drama. But Fish chooses to leave the essay intact, distributing its every word among five unnamed performers (Rob Campbell, Merritt Janson, Lisa Joyce, Christina Rouner, and Michael Rudko). Sometimes each says the same speech, one after the other; sometimes they trade off consecutive lines; sometimes they tag the speech to various actions—running, singing, changing clothes. Apparently, all the actors have all the text memorized, and Fish cues them by clicking on and off a sequence of color lights that dot Laura Jellinek’s set, which resembles an abstracted church basement.
Fish has a track record of delivering non-theatrical texts in highly theatrical ways. Last year, he created a performance piece based on audio of David Foster Wallace and many tennis balls, A (radically condensed and expanded) SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I’LL NEVER DO AGAIN (after David Foster Wallace). And a couple years ago he reconfigured all the lines from a black-and-white movie into a thrilling and clever two-actor suite called Tom Ryan Thinks He’s James Mason Starring in a Movie by Nicholas Ray.
Yet why Fish chose to stage this essay—and in this way—remains opaque. Individual moments, in which characters race around the stage or sing certain lines as hymns, have analogs in the text, but the decision to divide the essay among these actors doesn’t seem to have a thematic or narrative necessity. Perhaps it’s about the different identities that create the history of a family, I thought. Or possibly it’s a metaphor for the different selves Franzen conjures in the essay’s course, or the way each of us engages with narrative work, making it our own. Or, you know, maybe not.
No logic I could summon seemed entirely satisfying, nor were the actors (though very good) and the prose (also fine) remarkable enough to make that disconnect not niggle. Frustratingly, I had the feeling that Fish has very precise and reasoned arguments for his choices, he just hasn’t communicated them to the audience. About 40 minutes in, I gave up, quite a bit later than many in the crowd, who had lulled themselves to sleep just after the introduction. The project Fish constructs has a solid foundation and many tempting features, but as the play wore on (to an admittedly agreeable finish), this House wasn’t a place I felt I could buy.