News Ticker

Appropriate

May just be the ultimate dysfunctional American family drama, plus a scathing condemnation of the worst elements in American history.

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Michael Esper, Corey Stoll and Sarah Paulson in a scene from the Second Stage production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate” at The Helen Hayes Theater (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

The Broadway production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate may just be the ultimate dysfunctional American family drama, plus a scathing condemnation of the worst elements in American history. This revised and riveting version of the Off Broadway play that won its author the Obie Award for Best Play of the Year in 2013 is a comedy-drama with tragic overtones which may be a bonafide tragicomedy. Lila Neugebauer’s superb production also has a sublime ensemble led by Sarah Paulson, Corey Stoll and Elle Fanning as members of a family that cannot be in the same room for two minutes without fighting – though they certainly have much to fight about. It is also remarkable as a play by an African American playwright which has only white characters, a new kind of study in America’s racist past.

Unlike Tracy Letts’ August – Osage County, Appropriate (with its punning title which has several meanings in the context of the play) reaches far back into American history and has many themes aside from family relationships. Set in the summer of 2011, the Lafayette family has gathered one last time at the former plantation home in southwest Arkansas of their father Ray, a former Washington lawyer, who has died here six months ago. The ostensible reason is the auction of the house and the estate grounds to cover huge bills that were discovered after Ray’s death. Older sister Toni, Ray’s executor, two years divorced from her husband Derek and traveling with her problem teenage son Rhys, has arranged the auction with the estate agents but finding them incompetent has recently fired them. She had planned to do the work herself only to run out of time. The plantation house now looks a mess and is in no condition to be seen by potential buyers.

Natalie Gold and Corey Stoll in a scene from the Second Stage production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate” at The Helen Hayes Theater (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Middle brother Bo has arrived from New York with his Jewish wife Rachael and his two children, Cassidy, a girl in her teens, and Ainsley, a younger boy. Unexpectedly youngest brother Francois/Frank now calling himself Franz has appeared uninvited with his 23 year old fiancée River from Portland, Oregon where he has been living the last few years. He had not attended their father’s funeral as they had not known where he was the last ten years and he had not heard about it until too late.

Each has come for a different reason: Toni wants reparations for the years she spent bringing up Franz and helping their father after their mother’s early death and the time she now feels was wasted. Franz in those days was a troubled youth who became an alcoholic, drug addict and a convicted sex offender after causing her endless trouble. Bo has been bankrolling the father for years and wants a return on the money he has spent from the upcoming auction. He expects to lose his job and is desperate for cash. And Franz, in his late 30’s to early 40’s, who is now in AAA wants to give both Toni and Bo an apology under the prodding of River, one neither of these siblings wishes to hear.

Sarah Paulson  and Elle Fanning in a scene from the Second Stage production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate” at The Helen Hayes Theater (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

However, none are easy people. Toni is foul-mouthed, angry, bitter and judgmental, though apparently she has cause. Although Bo, a corporate materialist, has footed the bill, he has been to Arkansas only once since his marriage and once for the funeral and has been no help with either Ray or Franz. While Franz seems to have changed he has not been completely honest with River about his past.

While attempting to clean up the house for a suddenly scheduled estate sale to raise some immediate cash, unpleasant historic artifacts turn up – shockingly so as they are found by the children who do not understand the import of these items. Did they belong to their father or did they come with the house? And does that make Ray a racist? In dredging up their recollections, Rachael has bad memories of her father-in-law who appeared to her to be anti-Semitic and Bo who recalls his father’s inappropriate behavior toward his Black Yale roommate. And then when it appears that these inappropriate historic artifacts are worth a good deal of money in today’s market, the family shows their true colors and their claws come out as they fight to get the lion’s share.

Natalie Gold, Alyssa Emily Marvin, Michael Esper, Sarah Paulson and Corey Stoll in a scene from the Second Stage production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate” at The Helen Hayes Theater (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Under the subtle direction of Neugebauer (who also directed the New York premiere of Jacobs-Jenkins’ Everybody at Signature Theatre), the cast could not be better. As older sister Toni, Paulson creates an unforgettable monster, a bigger than life portrait that is searing in its intensity. As middle brother Bo, Stoll recently identified with Shakespeare productions is excellent as a passive-aggressive urbanite of ambiguous morality. Michael Esper as younger brother Franz is a conflicted man who may or may not have found himself yet.

Fanning is centered as the New Agey girlfriend who may just be the sanest one of all. Natalie Gold as Bo’s New York Jewish wife is a woman who seems to look for slights that may not be there. As Rhys, Toni’s teenage son, Graham Campbell is very much like his Uncle Franz equally troubled at that age from wanting attention he has not been given by his feuding parents. Alyssa Emily Marvin’s Cassidy is curious in the ways of teenagers who think adults keep everything from her – and in this case she may be right. Though he isn’t given much to do, the several appearances of Everett Sobers (alternating with Lincoln Cohen) as Bo and Rachael’s youngest child prove to be catalysts for the action of the play.

Alyssa Emily Marvin and Elle Fanning in a scene from the Second Stage production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate” at The Helen Hayes Theater (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

The production design adds greatly to the texture of the play and its ominous and eerie mood. The architectural palatial plantation house setting by the collective dots is pitch perfect and its resurrection from a total mess at the beginning to an organized residence as the play goes on is quite uncanny. Dede Ayite’s contemporary costumes define the characters as soon as we meet them from River’s Native American garb to Bo’s designer shirts. The lighting by Jane Cox varies from bright Arkansas morning sunlight to sinister evening scenes which along with the eerie sound design by Bray Poor and Will Pickens lead to the ghostly coda or epilogue which rounds out the play. UnkleDave’s Fight-House is responsible for the vigorous and comic climax which ends the family relationships.

Not only is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate a classic American family drama with a new wrinkle, it is also a trenchant and scorching look at American racism which is just under the surface. So fine a playwright has Jacob-Jenkins become that every line of dialogue develops character and plot. What is most shocking about the play is how little the younger generation depicted knows about its American history, things we all should be aware of. Lila Neugebauer’s production for Second Stage mines all of the play’s nuances and her staging is smooth and effortless.

Michael Esper and Graham Campbell in a scene from the Second Stage production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate” at The Helen Hayes Theater (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

The cast led by stage, screen and television stars Sarah Paulson, Corey Stoll and Elle Fanning (in her Broadway debut) make the most of their many opportunities. Appropriate is the most satisfying new American play on Broadway at this time and should not be missed. The running time may seem long but the rising tension and periodic revelations make the play feel like it could even be longer.

Appropriate (extended through June 23, 2024)

Second Stage Theater

In association with Ambassador Theatre Group, Amanda Dubois, Annapurna Theatre and Bad Robot Live

The Helen Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th Street, in Manhattan (through March 3, 2024)

Moving to the Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th Street, in Manhattan (March 25 – June 23, 2024)

For tickets, call 212-541-4516 or visit http://www.2st.com

Running time: two hours and 40 minutes including one intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (972 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.




This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.