It would be easy to write off Appropriate - the Branden Jacobs-Jenkins show now open at the Signature Theatre - as another one of “those” plays capitalizing on the "dysfunctional family and their history” tropes. But in the same vein of Will Eno openly addressing this fact in The Open House (no really, check the synopsis), Jacobs-Jenkins displays a similar level of candor. Hell, he said as much, admitting to Frankenstein-ing Appropriate with a whole bunch of inspiration from his favorite shows.
The end result? Clever to a point, but more fun then anything.
Although, much credit is owed to Liesl Tommy’s directorial skills, carefully guiding Appropriate through every scene and twist without overwhelming the audience. And that’s quite the accomplishment when the Lafayette family, whom all reunite at their deceased father/grandfather’s house settling the remains of his estate and possessions, are dealing with racism (the children discover a photo album of lynchings), a divorced mom WHO HAS HAD IT, her apathetic son kicked out of school for dealing drugs resulting in a peer’s death, the return of the long-lost black sheep convicted of pedophilia (whom brings along his hippie fiancé, further shaking up the proceedings). What else? A cousin flirting with her other cousin (of course), an in-law bringing up unresolved tensions, a potential house haunting because it is located mere steps from a cemetery and weird energies and ghosts…and, there’s a lake involved, somewhere…and…I think I got it all, but don’t hold me to that.
But Tommy’s direction is highly self-aware and resists indulging in too much melodrama. With the book essentially disqualifying itself from being insightful, emotional or even drop-dead witty, Tommy’s pacing just cycles through each plot and character moment without looking back…which is why it ends up being a more light and fun take on these conventions as opposed to overwrought. And the last minute or so is a masterpiece of vision and the perfect touch to the absurdity we just watched.
What I am basically saying is...Appropriate crescendos and eventually - for me, a few minutes into the second act - you’re committed for the long haul despite whatever initial concerns you might have. I actually started clapping when certain characters antagonize a verbal throw-down and when an ACTUAL throw-down happened, I was that mouth-dropped, wide-eyed “clutching thyself” audience patron. Because obviously. Because loving it.
The performers may take some time to find their groove, but some of them are worth holding out for. Johanna Day and Maddie Corman are fun to watch, especially when they bear their claws at each other and refuse to back, the fuck, down. But my favorites of the ensemble were Patch Darragh and Sonia Harum, as the reformed pedophile-turned-spiritual Franz and his fiancé, “River” (not her birth-given name, but we all need a friend name ‘River’, I’m thinking). Darragh is given a nuanced performance the character calls for, equal parts apologetic and sympathetic, but also defensive and full-blown spiritual hot mess. His (shirtless!) monologue in the second act is well-executed, as Darragh conveys sincerity and a frantic energy without missing a beat.
Harum is a more discreet, lingering type of performance (and she benefits from costumer/set designer Clint Ramos styling her to perfection) as the laid-back Oregonian whom made-over Franz' soul. But, as her character’s motivations grow more dubious (‘River’ knows her legal jargon being born to a family of lawyers), just glance over at her...Harum internalizes a devious, calculated beckoning to contrast the free-spirited, bohemian exterior. In what could be an expendable character, I can’t stop thinking about Harum and her perfect portrayal of the character, no matter how small the role.
And I LOVED Ramos set design, an unspoken hero of the show. A decrepit, old house in Arkansas with a whole bunch of shit strewn through it, so much so, even real-life hoarders would cock their head and say, “hmm, you should clean this place up.” It’s actually a miracle that the house gets remotely clean…I wanted to slip a twenty to the production crew hauling ass at intermission to spruce up the place (for story purposes, that is). And, like the show overall, it all pays off…a complete story, blending the familiar in an unfamiliar way, that’s a surprisingly fun watch thanks to some great direction. What more can a theatre person want?
Ticket Provided By the Production
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus