Reviews

Appropriate ***1/2

By: Samuel L. Leiter

[Note: some of what follows is adapted from my review of a 2014 production.] 

January 10, 2024: Greeting the audience before the curtain rises on Branden Jacob-Jenkins’s Appropriate, a sometimes compelling, sometimes overwritten dramedy,is a projection offering six meanings for the title word. The word itself is spoken only once, when a 13-year-old girl’s mother insists that something is not appropriate (i.e., “suitable”) for her daughter to view. “Inappropriate” is heard when the same mother is offended by the idea of her teen having an online relationship with her uncle. Other meanings, tied to a different pronunciation, imply taking possession of something without consent, or even stealing. It’s up to us—if we so choose—to ponder which meanings appropriately reflect Jacob-Jenkins’s intentions.

Alyssa Emily Marvin and Elle Fanning.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

[Note: some of what follows is adapted from my review of a 2014 production.] 

January 10, 2024: Greeting the audience before the curtain rises on Branden Jacob-Jenkins’s Appropriate, a sometimes compelling, sometimes overwritten dramedy,is a projection offering six meanings for the title word. The word itself is spoken only once, when a 13-year-old girl’s mother insists that something is not appropriate (i.e., “suitable”) for her daughter to view. “Inappropriate” is heard when the same mother is offended by the idea of her teen having an online relationship with her uncle. Other meanings, tied to a different pronunciation, imply taking possession of something without consent, or even stealing. It’s up to us—if we so choose—to ponder which meanings appropriately reflect Jacob-Jenkins’s intentions.

Elle Fanning and Corey Stoll.

When the curtain rises, a stage filled with the accumulated junk of a lifetime greets us at Second Stage’s Hayes Theater, where, after a 2014 Off-Broadway production (following regional versions), it’s receiving its first Broadway showing. Soon we are confronted by a lifetime of another kind of accumulated junk, the ill feelings harbored by each member of a dysfunctional family for one another. As in plays by, for example, Horton Foote and Tracy Letts, these feelings emerge when the family in question, the Lafayettes, assemble at their southeast Arkansas ancestral home one summer night in 2011 to divvy up the estate of their late father, Ray, a judge.

Ray was a hoarder over the past two decades of his life, so the design team “dots”—and a busy prop coordinator—have filled up the decaying plantation mansion with all the detritus he collected; Ray’s oldest child, Toni (Sarah Paulson, Talley’s Folly, TV’s “Ratched,” “Impeachment”), has been carrying everything down from the second-story bedrooms into the living room to make sleeping space upstairs for her arriving brother, Bo (Corey Stoll, Macbeth, TV’s “Billions”) and his family. She’s also preparing for the estate sale that’s been planned to help pay off their father’s debts and provide some income for his descendants. 

Here, surrounded by the piles of toys, boxes, linens, family portraits, knickknacks, clothes, books, and other family debris, the sparks of familial angst begin to fly as Bo, his wife, Rachael (Natalie Gold, TV’s “Succession”), and their children, eight-year-old Ainsley (Everett Sobers when I attended) and 13-year-old Cassidy (Alyssa Emily Marvin), arrive. They were expected but Frank (Michael Esper, The Last Ship), calling himself Franz, and his considerably younger fiancée, 23-year-old River (Elle Fanning, TV’s “The Great”), were not.

Graham Campbell 

Cassidy insists that she’s “almost an adult” when her parents try to stop her ears and eyes from certain things being said and shown. Ainsley runs riot through the old house as Rachael tries to restrain him, warning he’ll get overheated. Rachael has reasons to resent being here, among them Toni’s animosity toward her. Franz, an abuser of both drugs and alcohol, is a convicted pedophile striving to reform; the hippie-like River (real name Trisha), mingles New Age comments with intelligence and good intentions (both her parents are lawyers, as are her two sisters). Filling out the picture is Rhys (Graham Campbell), Toni’s closeted teenage son, who was placed in juvenile detention for selling drugs, behavior that led to Toni’s dismissal as vice-principal of his school.

Toni, with a ten-ton chip on her shoulder, is unhappy at Rhys’s decision to move in with his father, from whom she’s divorced, living on his alimony payments. Do we also detect a touch of incestual attraction in Toni’s concern for her son? The rising pile of emotional crap in her system comes spewing forth once she has her family as targets, and she’s especially pissed off by Rachael, who claims that an overheard reference to her by Ray as “Bo’s Jew wife” marked him as an anti-Semite. 

Michael Esper and Elle Fanning.

When the going really gets tough, the volcano erupts and a second act donnybrook of epic proportions (amusingly staged by Unkledave’s Fight-House) spreads a torrent of kicks, punches, and hair-pulling lava all over the stage.

The hyper-realistically depicted, two-story house itself is a character of sorts, and gets to do some show-offy acting of its own, as are the summertime cicadas—an insect that emerges only every 13 years—whose insistent and eerie chirping (sound design by Bray Poor and Will Pickens) is heard in the darkness for a long stretch before the play proper begins; their ominous presence remains a constant, even earning a place of honor in the dialogue.

African American playwright Jacobs-Jenkins (An Octoroon), making his Broadway debut (he’s said to be writing the book for a Broadway adaptation of Prince’s Purple Rain movie), throws these white people together in a first act filled with vitriolic confrontations and recriminations based on the revelation of one family issue after the other. The catalyst for the greatest amount of anger and bewilderment, however, is the discovery of an album owned by Ray containing vintage photos showing Black people being lynched. 

Michael Esper, Corey Stoll and Sarah Paulson.

As various sound and visual effects often remind us, ghosts of the past haunt the place, which is right next to a cemetery, with a slave burial ground also close by. These complicate the prospective sale of the house, whose proceeds the family has been looking forward to. Those graveyards may be causing more damage even than that.

The family vociferously considers itself anything but racist, and—Toni especially—struggles to tie their memories of their father to anything that would explain his possession of the album. Then, after all the arguments about the difficulty of accepting Ray as a racist, arguments that force the family to confront its troubled history, Branden-Jenkins introduces something shocking that reopens the debate while also detonating a huge laugh (of which the play has several).

When the album turns out to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to interested collectors, it acts as a stimulant to the otherwise self-righteous Bo, whose New York job is looking iffy. We see how, despite all of Bo and his family’s disavowals of racism, the idea of making a bundle by selling (appropriating?) these horrific pictures for someone’s private entertainment seems completely reasonable to them. Many audience members—regardless of their race—surely consider what they would do under similar circumstances.

Sarah Paulson and Elle Fanning.

Act One is filled with lots of shouted recriminations, but Act Two, which begins after the set has been cleared of most of the junk, leaving what remains neatly arranged, is somewhat quieter and not as interesting. It’s also when the big fight breaks out, among other disturbing events (such as Frank accidentally seeing Rhys masturbating and thinking his turn-on is the album). 

While it gives us a chance to see the family in a more restrained mood (if only temporarily) and to listen to their problems (including Franz’s desperate attempt to change the course of his life) without holding our ears, it also includes too much moralistic speechifying; these oratorical outbursts sometimes seem present to provide each major character with set pieces for histrionic display. Long stretches of actionless dialogue dull the play’s propulsion, making its two and a half hours seem even longer. And, given the great amount of exposition required, the playwright often struggles, without making it sound artificially contrived, to introduce information that another character should know but doesn’t.

Under Lila Neugebauer’s brisk direction, the acting, even when loud, is consistently believable, although the characters are mostly unlikable. Much of the dialogue has been directed so that the sentences overlap, as in realistic arguments. The characters—all perfectly costumed by Dede Ayite—walk a fine line between being recognizable human beings and Southern Gothic grotesques; especially in Act One, their constant acrimony makes them boorish to the point of boredom. Still, there’s a certain fascination in watching such people interact, especially when each of them is able to find some justification in their behavior, no matter how distasteful or ludicrous it may appear to observers.

Natalie Gold, Alyssa Emily Marvin, Michael Esper, Sarah Paulson and Corey Stoll.

As Toni, Sarah Paulson again proves her mettle as one of our foremost leading ladies, making her vitriolic character both hateful yet thoroughly human. Corey Stoll’s Bo offers multiple dimensions combining self-confidence with emotional vulnerability, while Natalie Gold’s Rachael is convincing as an overprotective mother and sharp-tongued combatant. Michael Esper makes the most of the troubled Franz, especially during his big speech near the end of Act Two, while Elle Fanning makes the much-maligned River perhaps the play’s most sympathetic character, even while serving as a target for meanspirited jabs and jokes. (A seriously implausible note: River—for all her intelligence—has no idea of who Emmett Till was.)

When the last character has exited, the play is not yet over, as ghostly presences take control of the house, and, in several brief sequences separated by blackouts, make themselves known as the joint begins to crumble, and, finally, transform before our eyes. The special effects (Jane Cox’s extraordinary lighting) are brilliant, adding a visual/auditory fillip to the performance.

Appropriate is a play with multiple themes: parenting (mothering, in particular), greed, racism, anti-Semitism, pedophilia, substance abuse, forgiveness, responsibility, guilt, white privilege, marriage, family love and resentment, the internet’s contents, and so on, including, of course, the issue of what and when something is appropriate. 

Appropriate ***1/2
The Hayes Theater
240 W. 44th Street, NYC
Through March 3, 2024
Photography: Joan Marcus