Two of the three sisters arguing about selling the house in Union Pier in the play “Relativity Close”.


In Relatively Close, the new James Sherman comedy that opened at Victory Gardens Theater last week, three adult sisters and their families gather at their late parents’ longtime summer home in Union Pier, Michigan. One of the sisters wants to sell the place, and she’s planning to spend the week convincing her sisters it’s a good idea.

The play is very topical; there’s even a Sam Zell joke to signal that it’s happening right now. Which is why I kept wondering: “How come, in the midst of all this real-estate talk, not one of these sisters, husbands, or lovers gripes that, with the market so soft, it may be a bad time to try to sell the house?”

One of the characters has a very precise estimate of the value of the house’s lot, with its 100 feet of lake frontage and enough land to accommodate six new homes. (I checked with two agents who sell in southwest Michigan, and both said the figure—$2 million–plus—was about right.) Several of the characters definitely live in Chicago, and it seems likely that the others do as well; the adults are all intelligent professional people who would certainly be aware that the Chicago real-estate market is in a slump. When arguing about selling the Michigan house, wouldn’t at least one of them throw out the idea that the market might be slowing down on the east side of the lake as well?

I checked Harbor Country real estate with two sources: Karen Larkin Johnson, who heads up the agency that bears her name, and Chris Crawford of Crawford Group Sotheby’s (their two firms have just merged). Both said that prices for lakefront property in Harbor Country have not changed in the past few years, though they may be on the rise as the high cost of gas spurs interest in close-to-home vacation retreats.

Real estate has been everyone’s favorite pincushion this year; everybody likes to complain how bad it’s been, even if they’re not selling or buying right now. So wouldn’t one of these sisters or their men mention to  the eager-to-sell sister that the market is slow?

The answer is fairly simple, as I learned during my conversation with the playwright. “When I was writing the play, the market didn’t suck,” says James Sherman. He had researched property values and locations in Harbor Country diligently—and it shows in the figures thrown around by the characters that want to sell. Indeed, the four-bedroom, two-bath vacation home on Lake Michigan would most likely go for the $2 million-plus the characters discuss. I’m not complaining about Sherman’s take on house values, just about his characters’ total lack of mentioning the weak state of the real-estate market in a play that is packed with real-life details. “Honestly, I’ve had the same thought,” Sherman says.

This one omission didn’t spoil the play for me, and it won’t for others who go—particularly because most playgoers, unlike me, don’t see everything through real-estate–tinted glasses. So maybe they won’t notice the other thing that bugged me. This is supposed to be an old house, with dated furniture and checkerboard linoleum on the kitchen floor. So how is it that the hardwood floors, the wooden handrails, and the wooden front door gleam with the hand-rubbed finish you see in a new luxury home?