Theatergoers who have had to deal with their family's home being up for sale after their parents' deaths will find some of their worst fears, most cherished memories, and long-simmering resentments churned up by the densely packed and often lyrical House for Sale, now being presented by the Transport Group at The Duke on 42nd Street.
The show, directed and adapted by Daniel Fish, takes Jonathan Franzen's original text – a first-person narrative about selling his mother's home in a suburb of St. Louis – and rather than presenting it as a solo piece, refracts it through a quintet of voices (Rob Campbell, Lisa Joyce, Merritt Janson, Christina Rouner, and Michael Rudko).
While some portions of the text are sung -- Polly Pen has provided music that has a dissonant liturgical sound -- sections such as the essay's introductory paragraphs are heard multiple times, recited in succession, by each member of the indefatigable ensemble. Here, the cast takes their prompts from colored light bulbs that are lined up in strips that are hung and placed around the stage, which has a kind of sculptural beauty thanks to Laura Jellinek's innovative scenic design.
As the play unfolds, what emerges is a kind of mordant ode to the death of the American Dream for Generation Xers who have reached middle age, as well as a melancholic tribute to the Baby Boomers who bore them.
The text itself covers not only the events surrounding the sale of the house, but also some of the narrator's childhood memories, such as his parents' discordant marriage and a trip to Disneyland. Fish also includes some occurrences that come after the family home has been unloaded. (His musings on the fundraising efforts following Hurricane Katrina spark with savory irony).
The work falters, though, when Fish's direction becomes heavy-handed, such as the sequence when the company is all running in place while the narrator expresses the pressure he feels (from his other siblings, as well as from himself as he thinks about what his deceased mother would want) to make a quick, profitable sale.
Nevertheless, being on the roller coaster of Franzen's emotions and memories in this discomfiting, but strangely satisfying show, is a mostly worthwhile ride.