NEW YORK (AP) — Once you get past the challenging beginning of the Transport Group's otherwise enjoyable new work based on Jonathan Franzen's quirky essay, "House For Sale," you can settle in for an eccentric and fun theatrical presentation.
Daniel Fish, who adapted Franzen's text for the stage, directs a kaleidoscopic production that opened Wednesday night at The Duke on 42nd Street.
Aside from the annoying opening scene, wherein the cast of five separately repeats the same ream of dialogue, the rest of the comedy moves along at a sprightly pace, buoyed by original music by Polly Pen.
The actors roam the stage while reciting Franzen's humorous, bittersweet story about growing distant from his family, framed around the process of selling his childhood home in idyllic Webster Grove, Mo., after his mother's death. The actors' text roles change throughout each performance, live-cued onstage by a colored light assigned to each. So they always keep an eye on one of the yellow boxes of bright-hued bulbs that control who says what.
Franzen, a National Book Award winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist, included a wide range of observations interspersed with childhood memories, especially of his parents lovingly working on the house. He also reflected on post-Katrina guilt, political rage against the Bush government for creating "a privatized America," and childhood vacation trips to Florida and Disneyworld.
His parents' mantra "It'll sell the house!" gleefully uttered after each upgrade, proved sadly ironic. A sudden projection of the gory, bullet-spewing death scene from the 1967 film, "Bonnie and Clyde" comically clues us in to a different possible sale outcome.
The actors do a fine job, notably a deranged-looking Rob Campbell and a very perky Lisa Joyce. Michael Rudko projects a laid-back persona, while Christina Rouner and Merritt Janson provide varying degrees of intensity. At times, the cast sings the text together or chants it like a tone poem. In one scene, all five frantically jog in place while speaking, and at other times, they flop in exhaustion, talk over one another or play an organ.
Kudos to lighting designer Thomas Dunn, and to the whole design team for providing unexpected sound and projections, along with whimsical costume changes. Fish has created a successfully light-hearted tribute that doesn't distract from Franzen's thoughtful, eminently relatable reflection on family ties.