Monday, December 25, 2023

Appropriate: The Chaotic American Family

Natalie Gold, Alyssa Emily Marvin, Michael Esper, Sarah Paulson and Corey Stoll in Appropriate. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

A magnificent cast under Lila Neugebauer’s direction brings Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate to fierce, scrapping life in its Broadway premiere, produced by 2ndStage Theater. The play is the latest entry in the postmodern American family saga sweepstakes, following in the footsteps of such works as Sam Shepard’s Buried Child (1978), Christopher Durang’s The Marriage of Bette and Boo (1985) and Tracy Letts’s August Osage County (2007). These plays scramble the conventions of classic American family plays – and there are dozens of those, all circling around Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night – adding elements of satire, parody and knockabout humor as well as anti-realist styles like theatre of the absurd (present in both Buried Child and Bette and Boo) and surrealism. Like Buried Child, Appropriate catapults into surrealism in its final moments, though it also folds in a generous dollop of Southern Gothic. Jacobs-Jenkins has set it on a dilapidated Arkansas plantation after the death of the Lafayette family patriarch, whose three children have gathered on the day of the estate auction. And like Shepard’s play, which it alludes to repeatedly, and also like Bruce Norris’s great Clybourne Park, Appropriate circles around a family secret. The secret isn’t buried in the garden like the corpse of the incest baby in Buried Child or under a tree like the chest belonging to the Korean War vet in Clybourne Park; the Lafayette siblings discover it among their father’s mementos when they clean out the plantation house. It’s a scrapbook of photographs of lynchings that complicates further the legacy of a man who was already difficult in life – irascible, sometimes cruel but also full of contradictions. And at the end of the play we still don’t have a clear picture of him, not just because his children had very different opinions about him but also because the playwright refuses to provide a reliable explanation for the photographs.

The eldest of the trio of Lafayette siblings is Toni (Sarah Paulson), a fifty-ish divorcee with a teenage son, Rhys (Graham Campbell), who got himself in trouble at school for dealing dope. Toni is self-righteous and self-pitying; she sees herself as the family martyr, the only one who bothered to look in on her dad at regular intervals.  She carries a load of anger and resentment that she drops on everyone else except for Rhys, who accepts her affection with resignation and whose recent decision to live with his father nettles and unsettles her. Toni’s most potent offense is her wit, which she offers as proof not just of intellectual superiority to everyone but her brother Bo (Corey Stoll) but also of stronger reasoning power. She tries to bully and guilt the people around her into submission with a linguistic battery of tools: insult, sarcasm, ridicule and the sheer volume of her voice.

Bo is a year or two younger, and his method of dealing with the challenges of his family has been to lay as low as possible. He’s acquired some skill at navigating his sister’s unrelenting storminess, but his Jewish wife Rachael (Natalie Gold), who is more highly strung than he is, hasn’t. She sees her sister-in-law as a harpy incapable of restraint or sensitivity. Rachael is incredulous when Toni refuses to read the photographs as proof that her father was racist, and when Toni makes light of her claim that he was also anti-Semitic she becomes furious. Of course, since opposition of any kind immediately puts Toni on attack and she flies immediately into flamboyant overstatement, it’s impossible to know what she really believes. (Bo’s preference is for understatement.) Bo and Rachael have arrived accompanied by their kids, Cassidy (Alyssa Emily Marvin), who’s about fourteen, and a little boy named Ainsley (Everett Sobers, alternating with Lincoln Cohen).

Frank (Michael Esper), the youngest Lafayette by about a decade, has brought along his twenty-three-year-old girlfriend River (Elle Fanning), whose air of entitlement is masked, not very effectively, by a New Age vibe. Frank, who now calls himself Franz though no one except loyal River follows suit, has good reasons to reinvent himself. He has a seriously checkered past – drugs, sexual misconduct – and neither his sister nor his brother has seen him in years, though his father, we learn, kept him afloat financially all this time. Frank is hapless and not overly bright, but he’s managed to use self-help strategies as a way of extending what his siblings recognize as an essential selfishness. And since he was still young when his father returned from the northeast to reclaim the old family home and is the only Lafayette offspring who ever lived alone with him, he’s tailored a version of his father that dovetails conveniently into his own disastrous personal history: an abusive parent who bears much of the responsibility for the way Frank turned out. Frank and River are a clever variation on Vince, the prodigal son in Buried Child, and his girlfriend Shelly.    

Jacobs-Jenkins, who wrote An Octoroon and the sharp-witted workplace comedy Gloria, is perhaps the most talented and funniest dialogue writer of the current generation of American playwrights. The actors have a field day with their wonderful lines, and everyone in the cast gets to shine, including Marvin as Cassidy, who’s sweet but nobody’s fool and whose interaction with Campbell as her cousin Rhys, the object of her crush, is very touching. What drew me to the play, besides the playwright, was the chance to see Paulson and Stoll, both of whom I’ve been lucky enough to catch live on other occasions, and the freakishly gifted Fanning, who is often off the charts in movies but who has no previous stage credits. All three are terrific, but my favorite performance is Esper’s. He shows the greatest range and his handling of a long monologue in the second act is breathtaking. Esper wasn’t unfamiliar to me: I saw him as Linda Lavin’s gay son in The Lyons and I particularly admired him as the exasperated business partner of the temperamental chef in the Williamstown Theatre Festival production of Seared. His acting is more impressive every time I watch him work.

Appropriate is very entertaining, but I don’t think it’s a great piece of writing. Though it’s the only wild-card American family play I’ve seen by an African American playwright, and though Jacobs-Jenkins made his bones with An Octoroon, a twenty-first-century rewriting of a race play by Dion Boucicault, a nineteenth-century Irish writer of popular melodramas, he’s too sophisticated and his dramatic instincts are too good to make Appropriate just about race. But much as I respect Jacobs-Jenkins for broadening the play’s thematic focus, once he introduces those photographs they inevitably skew the balance. Appropriate never stops giving the audience a good, juicy time, but it stops short of being profound. And it goes on too long: Jacobs-Jenkins comes up with a sensational image for a final curtain but the play continues for another fifteen or twenty minutes, and the finale mostly shows off the stagecraft. (The exceptional stage and lighting design are by, respectively, a multi-disciplinary collective called dots and Jane Cox.) Robert Altman did something similar but far more interesting in his movie of Ed Grazyk’s play Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. But I would like my response to register as a critical stipulation and not a complaint. Everyone who’s close enough should go out to see this show.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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