Family Matters: Bad Jews Is a Sharp Group Portrait, but A Summer Day’s Drama Is Painfully Dull

House For Sale’s experiment crashes

What I think the Transport Group is trying to do in House For Sale, Daniel Fish’s adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s essay about his childhood in idyllic suburbia and selling his parents’ home after his mother’s death, is find a new way to render a piece of writing—a narrated one, without discrete scenes or dialogue—as drama, without being so old-fashioned as to make it a boring old play with boring old characters.

And so Mr. Fish, who also directs the production at the Duke on 42nd Street, has his five actors recite the essay to us, sometimes acting and sometimes not, sometimes repeating the same text, sometimes talking in unison, sometimes alternating word by word. A different cast member speaks when a tally light in his or her appointed color flashes. Most of them remove outer layers while they speak, to reveal different outfits.

There is something to be said for this experimental idea. But it’s quickly apparent that this is a failed experiment, that the devices involved in telling the story are much more often off-putting than engrossing. Mr. Franzen’s writing is powerful, and his voice comes through clearly. Unfortunately for the play, that only makes you realize how much you’d rather be sitting quietly and reading it.

Family Matters: <em>Bad Jews</em> Is a Sharp Group Portrait, but <em>A Summer Day</em>’s Drama Is Painfully Dull