A Neutral Stage

A realtor meets with a widow to work out the details of helping her sell her house. They discover they have a mutual, and unfortunate, acquaintance.


The living room of Josie Gutentag’s three-bedroom, one-bath home, in the Rockridge area of Oakland, Ca.

The room can be as realistically portrayed as desired, or use simply furniture, but needs a blue wall (or portion of a wall) somewhere on stage.


[Josie Gutentag’s living room would certainly strike a new acquaintance as an ordinary, middle class American living room.  It has a fireplace on the stage left wall, a couch along the back wall, an old upright piano on the right wall.  The exit to the kitchen is on the back wall and the exit to the rest of the house is stage right.  It has lamps, rug, coffee table, etc.  The only slightly odd thing is that all the furniture is against the walls.  When the curtain comes up, the set is empty, but Josie and Elyse enter almost immediately.]
JOSIE: Well, there you have it.  It doesn’t take long to go through our house.
ELYSE: No problem.  “There is a buyer for every size home,” we say at Fitzgerald and Fripp.  Don’t worry, Mrs. Gutentag.  If you decide to list with us, you will sell it like that.  [Snaps fingers]  In fact, if you decide not to list with us, you will still probably sell it like that.  [Snaps fingers again]  I shouldn’t admit that, but of course you must know that Rockridge is an extremely desirable area right now.
JOSIE: It’s gotten more and more expensive.  You can hardly find an ordinary tomato in the store any more.  They have yellow ones,  orange ones and some that are about a pound each–
ELYSE: Which can only be good for the price of your house.
JOSIE: So do you have an idea now what you think it’s worth?
ELYSE: I need to go back to my office and look at my notes and study recent Rockridge sales and some other information.  But I would say we’re not looking at under a million dollars.
JOSIE: A million dollars!  Oh my!  Conrad paid seventeen thousand!  And thought he was spending a fortune.
ELYSE: What year was that?  [Looking at notes]  Did you already tell me?
JOSIE: Let’s see.  Willie was two and he’s forty now…thirty-eight years ago..1968.
ELYSE: It’s pretty unusual to have a family in the same house all those years.  I guess you have a few memories here.
JOSIE: I know.  Sometimes I can’t believe I’m selling Conrad’s house out from under him.
ELYSE: Out from under him.  But I thought you said –“It’s so much to take care of alone”, I thought I remembered you saying on the phone.
JOSIE: Oh, yes.  He’s gone.  I waited one year.  Everybody knows, it seems, that you don’t do anything rash for a year.  People I hardly knew said, “Give it a year, for closure.”  If I hear the word “closure” one more time–!  Besides, if you were married to someone forty-three years, do you ever really close that relationship?

Sometimes I still feel like he’s just upstairs or out in the garage with his tools.  As I guess you can see, he spent a lot of time working on the house.

ELYSE: You can certainly see that somebody has been taking care of it.  Staging it will be a snap.
JOSIE: Staging it.  Staging what?
ELYSE: The house.  Setting up things in the house for optimum sales.
JOSIE: Setting up things in the house.  What things?  You have things I have to set up in our house?
ELYSE: No, no.  I mean moving around your things that are already here. And most importantly,  packing some away.
JOSIE: Do they care that much about my things ?  They’re not buying my things.
ELYSE: I guess you could say they don’t mean to care.  They get distracted.  For example these family photos.  You’ll need to take them down.
JOSIE: You want me to take down the family photos.…That have been up thirty years?!     Everybody has family photos in their house, don’t they?
ELYSE: People will stop and look at them and later forget what the house looks like and remember your photos.  Think of it this way:  you could say we want to neutralize the house.
JOSIE: Neutralize.
ELYSE: Make it a little more of a neutral space.  So they can see themselves in it.
JOSIE: A house with a family in it thirty years could be neutral?  Is that what they expect?!  That sounds crazy!
ELYSE: Then of course taking down your photos does afford you some privacy.  If you have fifty or 100 strangers tromping though your house, you may not want them to see that your grandmother weighed 350 pounds, or had a big nose, what ever.
JOSIE: Oh, no.  Conrad was very proud of his family.  And they really were a handsome family, don’t you think?  He’ll be disappointed when he discovers they’re not going to be shown off to the visitors.
ELYSE: [Looking again at pictures]  This is all his family.
JOSIE: I didn’t have any family pictures.  I was an orphan.
ELYSE: You don’t have to change anything.  I’m just suggesting what I think will help it sell faster, that’s all.  Real estate has changed a lot since you bought it thirty years ago.  Maybe you haven’t been in many houses for sale lately.

I started this play when a realtor friend of mine, Melanie Powers, happened to mention that houses were all being “staged” now and explained what that was. I think she thought that as a playwright I would find it interesting, which of course I did. Then she told me the reason was not only to make the houses seem more spacious—since they would be devoid of any clutter or large items of furniture—but to “neutralize” them. That comment set me off and running, and I think I wrote this play that afternoon. This play helped convince me that I truly was a playwright, since my first reaction was to sit down and write a play. Since I hadn’t taken any actual training at that point, and hadn’t attended more than about twenty of them, I sometimes wondered if I was “making up” my desire to write the darn things. A poet I knew had accused me of writing plays because it was “easier to become famous”—which shows how little she knew about it—but after I wrote this I stopped questioning the whole deal and accepted that both a poet and playwright were what I was.

Although the prices have gone up since—and companies should feel free to alter the price as needed—the issues in the play are still exactly the same. Especially when the conversation suddenly veers away from selling Mrs. Gutentag’s house.

This play is also an example of my efforts to develop interesting parts for women. I was very gratified when the two actors who first developed the roles thanked me for writing them, and said it was so great to play “real women over 25.”

When this play was first produced, a critic from EAST BAY EXPRESS wrote disparagingly that “the characters seem like perfectly ordinary people” and declared herself extremely bored by that. At first I was devastated; then I realized that yes, they were very realistic, and that was what I wanted. I’m not interested in creating more violent criminals, or people nobody can really believe. Sorry, but my ideals are OUR TOWN or MAJOR BARBARA: humor based on things people really do and say, and real issues, and people you think you might know. So thank you, callous critique. You nailed it.