What is fascinating and brave about Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins writing is that he is hauling old sins out into the light. I was speaking to some folks after seeing Appropriate at the Signature Theatre, and the particular sins that Jacobs-Jenkins examined seemed to be news to them. The matter of lynching, despicable in its own right, is laid out on the table in the form of a photo album. Lynchings were a social occasion that people documented. They brought their children to bear witness.
The metaphoric table on which this album is laid out belongs to the Lafayette family who inserts new colors to the rainbow of dysfunctional. The patriarch has died and the three siblings are reuniting just as the house, such as it is, is about to be auctioned off. The proceeds will do little more than wipe out the debt incurred by their father and Bo (Michale Laurence) who has been the main source of finances for the past few years. Toni (Johanna Day) has been the main source of elbow grease. She has been the one to visit every couple of weeks and see to it that her father and the caretaker were doing as well as could be while the house sort of collapsed around them.
As the play opens Toni has been at it, sorting out the mountains and mountains of detritus that her father left behind. She is making little headway, even though her son Rhys (Mike Faist) is there to help. The people hired to take care of cataloging for the estate sale were ripping them off, says Toni. Bo and his wife Rachael (Maddie Corman) – who has a case of neat and tidy that would make your head explode – arrive with their two children, Cassidy (Izzy Hanson-Johnston) who is bursting into womanhood, and her younger brother Ainsley (Alex Dreier) who is basically there to create chaos. Unbeknownst to any of them, Toni and Bo’s younger brother Frank (Patch Darragh) has returned the night before with his fiancée, River (Sonya Harum). Frank is the blackest of the family sheep, having been arrested for sleeping with a 13-year old, and spending many years addicted to whatever was available. He is sober now, and although no one has heard from him in 10 years, he is hoping for redemption and reconnection.
No one in this family likes one another. Well, the three siblings don’t. They are tied by that string of gristle known as a gene pool, but every time they stick their hand in to the mix, someone bites it. Having recently gone through a parent’s passing, I know how complicated the communication can get in situations like this. These three folks, however, are operating independent of one another. They talk, and react. They don’t listen. Their collisions are like bumper cars at an amusement park. After awhile you just want someone to shut off the power and announce that the ride is over.
These are folks who don’t need anything to help them explode, so when Jacobs-Jenkins tosses in the photo album of lynchings the situation becomes atomic. Not a one can believe that their father actually owned this object. Toni says he was too good. Frank says he was too unstable. Bo says he wasn’t social enough to be part of the Klan. As each person comes into contact with this piece of historic kryptonite, the outer trappings disappear and we see them naked as the day they were born. Only Rachael and River seem to have escaped the gene pool mess and are in possession of a smidge of objectivity. When Bo is left grasping at any innocent reason why the book was in the house at all – maybe it was for the planned bed and breakfast? – Rachael replies Oh, really? For the special Klan room or the lynching suite?!
The unfortunate part of this, for me, is that Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t choose one character to pull the plot along. The sibling trinity moves as one broken mass. No single person has a goal around which the story is built. Like its ancestors, this play furnishes each character with mighty (and beautifully performed, every single one) monologues that catalog the grievances each adult has tucked away in their memory bank. But to what purpose? The writing in the second act borders on sophomoric. Toni (who reveals in the last scene that she was looking forward to the weekend with her family – news to us) delivers a parting shot to her … maybe that’s all family is? Just a handful of stories that you tell yourself when you need an excuse – to explain how trapped you feel or broken or cheated?
For me it is not enough to spend two hours watching disagreeable people bounce off one another. I experience that in “real life”. I want my theatre to take real life and shift my perspective. I wanted Jacobs-Jenkins to go deep. I wanted him to take me into the basement of this family’s house of cards and shine his unique light on what was there. He went wide. He painted in broad strokes – an equal opportunity observer. In spite of the excellent performances and the very fine direction by Liesl Tommy, not to mention the killer set by Clint Ramos, instead of being pulled into the Lafayette family basement I was left out on the front lawn, asking the same question that Bo asked: Is there a point to all this?
I may be in the minority, however. The people with whom I spoke after the show didn’t care about any of that play structure crap. They got the story and they thought it was a mighty one. End of conversation. One play seen by 100 people equals 100 different plays. It is part of the magic of theatre.
All things considered, I look forward to more work from Jacobs-Jenkins. He is an adventuresome chronicler. Bravo to that.
The only remaining question is: Is it Appropriate as in “proper” or Appropriate as in take something from someone for your own use? Hmmmmm?
By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins; directed by Liesl Tommy
WITH: Maddie Corman (Rachael), Patch Darragh (Franz), Johanna Day (Toni), Alex Dreier (Ainsley), Mike Faist (Rhys), Izzy Hanson-Johnston (Cassidy), Sonya Harum (River) and Michael Laurence (Bo).
Sets and costumes by Clint Ramos; lighting by Lap Chi Chu; music and sound by Broken Chord; projections by Aaron Rhyne; fight directors, Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet; dialect coach, Ben Furey; production stage manager, Kyle Gates; associate artistic director, Beth Whitaker; director of production, Paul Ziemer. Presented by Signature Theater; James Houghton, artistic director; Erika Mallin, executive director. At the Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, Clinton, 212-244-7529, signaturetheatre.org. Through April 6. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.