The first theatrical adaptation of Jonathan Franzen plays on a dire sense of uncertainty

A scene from 'House For Sale.' (Carol Rosegg)
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Once a major magazine comes out and claims that you’re the “Great American Novelist,” you’re bound to catch some flak.

Jonathan Franzen has had this problem—not the worst problem in the world, admittedly—since Time made that claim for him in 2010 following the publication of Freedom. And so he’s had to make nice with Oprah, deal with the many who think his success comes from privilege, take in stride those who claim he’s got a “female problem,” and then, to top it off, worry whether Matt Groening will be beneficent in drawing him into an episode of "The Simpsons."

And then, even facing all that, Franzen’s got to figure out what to do next.

As most writers do between novels, he’s tried to temper the world’s high expectations by moving sideways, writing about bird-watching in the Caribbean and chiseling tiny cracks into the mythical careers of his dead peers. He’s even made a number of live appearances, tempering his reputation as something of a crank who is uninterested in speaking to his readers directly. Of course it’s not the first time Franzen has had to navigate the wake of his own notoriety. After The Corrections he wrote a slew of essays; some, along with some work from the '90s, ended up in the 2003 collection How To Be Alone, while the more personal ones—from his childhood as a “small and fundamentally ridiculous person,” through an awkward adolescence to becoming the adult, and the writer, he would eventually be—were ultimately collected, in 2007, as The Discomfort Zone.

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One strategy for what to do next, one that many novelists have investigated before, is writing for the stage and screen. While Franzen himself has never expressed interest in it, recently the Transport Group Theatre Company saved him the trouble. “House for Sale,” the first essay in The Discomfort Zone, has been adapted for the stage by the company under the direction of Daniel Fish. Fish is at home with directing plays by well-known novelists, having staged a “radically condensed and expanded” version of the David Foster Wallace collection A Supposedly Funny Thing I’ll Never Do Again earlier this year.

“House For Sale” is the story of Franzen going back home to Missouri to take care of the house his recently deceased mother spent half of her life putting together; the house where Franzen himself was “the only person in the family who’d had a full childhood.” For House For Sale, Fish presents Franzen’s essay in the voices of five actors—Rob Campbell, Merritt Janson, Lisa Joyce, Christina Rouner, and Michael Rudko. Each is cued to read with special sets of lights that, when particular colored bulbs are illuminated, direct specific actors to read a section of the text. But, the playbill explains, the cues aren’t planned in advance; they are determined live so none of the actors know quite when they will be called on.

While it’s an actor’s job to memorize his or her lines—even if that means the 25 densely-written pages of “House For Sale”—it became clear in the first minutes of House For Sale that recalling Franzen’s words is no easy task. The essay wasn’t written to be spoken, much less for the stage. The lights blinking on and off lent an air of urgency to the production, and the frisson of potential catastrophe.

The five actors are scattered about the sparse stage floor, which consists mainly of about 50 chairs; a riser at the front of the stage with a flatscreen television lying on its back; an organ; and, as the play begins, a projected image of Faye Dunaway in the iconic role of Bonnie Parker in the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. Given the system, none of the actors play a specific person mentioned in the essay; there’s no one member of the cast designated as Franzen, his parents, or anybody else, and the actors are never in dialogue with each other, though there are moments when several lights go on at once, and a chorus of voices results.

Each cast member takes a turn recalling the first four paragraphs of the essay, repeating it like it’s a mantra, in which Franzen recalls the first few moments alone in the empty house where his family once lived. It’s chilling, a bit mechanical, and almost calls to mind the sort of repetition favored by Philip Glass or Steve Reich. It seems grating at first, but as House For Sale unfolds, the Glass and Reich comparison becomes even more noticeable; almost like you’re watching Franzen on the Beach, with his words rhythmically whispered, screamed and cried out sometimes with microphones, often times without, at the flick of the little light bulb signaling who says what and when. The actors slowly start to pace around the stage as the play starts to come to life; they jog, they crawl, and at one point, one cast member drags another slowly across the riser like a dying animal, as they read. The cast member being dragged across clings to a microphone, and the chord trails behind like blood. It’s the closest thing there is to a prop, save for the flatscreen television, which plays old football games and Peanuts cartoons at certain points, and a large plant that sits alone in one of the chairs, never to be touched, pointed at, or acknowledged 'til the last moment of the play.

About 20 minutes in, the Dunaway image is unpaused and the final scene of the film—in which Bonnie and Clyde are riddled with bullets—begins to play. It's loud and jarring, and seemed a bit unnecessary. Images continued to show up on the screen throughout the play (shots from old movies of women speaking, as cast members took turns reading as Franzen’s mother; nondescript black-and-white scenes of families sitting around the kitchen), but none have the same impact, or interventionist feel, as the Bonnie and Clyde shot.

At some points throughout, the cast suddenly begins to sing Franzen’s words. Sometimes like a church choir accompanied by the doleful moans of the organ, and at one comical juncture, one of the cast members croons the part of the essay describing the sexual tension Franzen feels exists between him and a real estate agent who “was wearing excellent jeans.”

And while the acting is transfixing, there’s a hint of schadenfreude that goes along with watching five people work at the flip of a switch, knowing there’s got to be a certain panic when those lights light up, and sensing they’ve got to lose it at some point, forget the words and leave a slight gap when their light lights up. But at last night’s show there was hardly a mistake made, and the parts where the cast members seemed as if they were going to jumble their words filled the room with a second of unease, but quickly got right back on track.

House For Sale really isn’t a play in the traditional (or even postmodern) sense. There isn’t dialogue or much interaction; instead, it’s a staged essay reading where the five cast members are asked to recall things they've memorized and then act it out on cue without much warning that their turn is coming. They’re given a very personal essay written by one of America’s great living writers who has never publicly expressed any interest in the stage, and they turn it into something unexpected, exciting, and haunting. In fewer than 90 minutes (with no intermission) the five actors breathe new life into Franzen’s piece that deals with family, coping, middle age, and the lie of the American Dream.

It’s a hefty piece on paper, but House For Sale works beautifully on stage.

It’s a credit to the skill of Daniel Fish (pictured at left, at the controls of those lights) and his cast that the show is a work of art that it was never supposed to be. It also provides a nice distraction for those of us who are impatiently waiting to see what the “Great American Novelist” will be releasing next.

'House For Sale' is on through Nov. 18 at The Duke theater. Tickets are available here.

All photos by Carol Rosegg.