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TO SEE OR NOT TO SEE: “A Summer Day” & “House for Sale”

October 26th, 2012

Get caught up with what’s on stage with our review round-up. And that vaguely hollow, clinking sound you hear at the end of each segment? That’s me tossing in my two cents.

This week, by chance, I saw two off-broadway plays back-to-back that similarly stray beyond traditional dramatic language and provide interesting challenges for both the performers and the audience. While they might not be for everyone (as the divisive reviews attest), they certainly might be right for those looking for adventures beyond traditional Broadway fare…

Karen Allen in "A Summer Day". Photo by Sandra Coudert.


Sarah Cameron Sunde translates and directs a new play by acclaimed Norwegian writer Jon Fosse, about a woman–played by Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s Karen Allen–trapped in memories of one tragic day.

“…a quietly brutal little work that turns a romantic cliché into a sentence of existential doom (or freedom, depending on your mind-set).” New York Times

A Summer Day succeeds in touching the audience without making any effort to seduce it.” New York Post

“Fosse’s abstract technique may be an acquired taste, even in this 90-minute dose, but the welcome return of Karen Allen to the New York stage is a treat not to be missed.” Associated Press

“Like everything else in this slender narrative, the point is simply stated, over and over, in scene after scene, in increasingly melodramatic language. And calling it poetry doesn’t make it any less deadly.” Variety

Mizer’s Two Cents:  With its repetitive, purposefully simplistic dialogue, this play perfectly captures the circling cadences of someone obsessively going over and over a single event…but the question becomes, no matter how poetically achieved and accurate the effect, do you want to spend an hour and a half inside that static, grief-stricken mindset? I, for one, found it moving, though I did have to adjust my tempo and expectations so as not to look for traditional dramatic arcs or conflict driven outbursts. My theater companion for the evening, less impressed, said, “I admired it but I can’t say that I liked it.”

My admiration for Karen Allen’s performance, however, is unqualified. With an achingly open vulnerability, she gently pulls the audience into her confessional and handles the challenge of the language with touching ease–where some of the other actors push to differentiate the intentions behind their repeated, banal phrases. And when, toward the end of the play, Ms. Allen smiles, she is all at once the young woman of hope and the lost older woman–both reaching out for someone to hold.

Rob Campbell in "House for Sale". Photo by Carol Rosegg.


Daniel Fish and The Transport Group present an adaptation of a Jonathan Franzen essay about the aftermath of his mother’s death, as told by five actors “randomly” chosen to recite parts of the text.

“…a pointless and pleasureless stage adaptation of an essay by Jonathan Franzen.” New York Times

“Stylized to the point of airlessness, “House for Sale” takes an emotionally resonant text and manages to suck all the life from it.” New York Post

“Fish has created a successfully light-hearted tribute that doesn’t distract from Franzen’s thoughtful, eminently relatable reflection on family ties.” Associated Press

Mizer’s Two Cents:  A fascinating contrast to A Summer Day, this theater piece (it is NOT a play but more a spoken word experience) uses the extremely heightened, complex literary language of an essay (instead of ASD’s bare bones speech) to attempt to create drama. However, like a circus act, it tosses in a complication to make things more difficult for the performers. No, they aren’t juggling fire torches…though that might liven up an audience-testing opening fifteen minutes of repeated speeches. No, in this performance each of the cast is represented by a color on a bank of lights. When their light is illuminated, they speak. According to the program, the “assignment of the text is spontaneous and varies from night to night”. Given the 90 minute run time, my hat goes off to this talented cast for not only their command of all that learned text but also for speaking words meant to be read on a page with clarity and emotional intent.

But the assignment of text does make one question, as many of the techniques in this show do, to what end? The randomness of reading did not illuminate for me something about the essay, though it did provide some high wire interest. Your pleasure will depend on your affection for Franzen’s writing and your engagement with moment to moment directorial choices–hit and miss. I will say, though my mind wandered at times, I was emotionally touched by many of the observations about family, I appreciated some very bold moments (the loss of a parent likened viscerally to a Bonnie & Clyde shoot-up) and a final segment involving a striking costume change during the story of a trip to Disney World left me with a deeply melancholy appreciation for lost moments in my own life.

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