'Appropriate': Theater Review

Appropriate Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Craig Schwartz

Trenchant views on race and legacy are muddled in a thematically compelling but dramatically confused play

Rising-star playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Obie-winning reflection on race gets its West Coast premiere at the Mark Taper Forum.

Race has been a component of the work of playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins from the time he started writing right up to his breakout year in 2014. That was when he was recognized with an Obie Award for two works — An Octoroon, a modern adaptation of a 19th century play by Dion Boucicault, and Appropriate, a play about race paradoxically performed by an all-white cast. In it, the Lafayettes returns to their recently deceased father’s estate to prepare for its liquidation only to discover a relic that tells them more about the old man than they care to know. While Appropriate offers an incisive look at how a problem like racism, when rationalized or denied, can return to haunt us generation after generation, its most provocative and cogent points are diluted by repetition, overwriting and lack of focus.

The death of the paterfamilias (that hoariest of family drama devices) draws loved ones from points distant to the Lafayette plantation in Arkansas. Serenaded by sound designer Matt Tierney’s eerie cicadas, Frank (Robert Beitzel) and his fiancee, River (Zarah Mahler), arrive in the dead of night, climbing through a window into a spooky deserted living room with random items, furniture and mementos in messy piles.

The first scene, played by candlelight, seems to establish Appropriate as a ghost story. A ghost even appears to rise up off the sofa until we realize it’s Frank’s nephew Rhys (Will Tranfo), awakened by the intruders' noise. Moments later, his mother, Toni (Melora Hardin), unable to sleep, prepares for the arrival of their brother Bo (David Bishins), his wife, Rachel (Missy Yager), and their kids Cassie (Grace Kaufman) and Ainsley (Alexander James Rodriguez).

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A neurotic divorcee and single mom, Toni took care of their father in his waning days. Her resentment, toxically dispensed by Hardin, is part of the play’s central conflict. But it is enhanced by the discovery of a book of lurid photos of African Americans taken after they were lynched. How each copes with the revelation about their father is the provocative thesis of Appropriate. Toni believes that in a house so full of junk, he might never have seen the photos. But as more evidence surfaces, it becomes absurd to deny it any longer — their father, a legal scholar who was eyeing the Supreme Court, was a thoroughgoing racist.

The play’s shift from ghost story to family drama is a smooth transition, with American antecedents in the works of Tennessee Williams and, more recently, August Wilson. But the added element of broad comedy makes Appropriate tonally difficult to track, which is only part of the problem. Presented with two intermissions, the running time is close to three hours when it doesn’t have to be. But while Jacobs-Jenkins revisits ideas, spins his wheels and sometimes follows tangents nowhere, his broader points remain vital to meaningful discussions on race.

If racism has been part of our history for as long as it has, it inevitably becomes a part of our culture, which operates in conscious and unconscious ways. It’s all a way of saying one can be racist without knowing it. The family’s discovery about their father cuts right to their own identity. Toni’s way of dealing with it is to deny it exists. Bo attempts to excuse his father as a good man from a different time. Having lived with this father, Frank concludes the old man was bipolar, but then again Frank has a few demons of his own. Each character’s effort to understand produces compelling ideas, but Appropriate relies on the thinnest of plotlines and offers minimal character growth, which leaves the audience sometimes struggling to stay with it.

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For the West Coast premiere, director Eric Ting has assembled a strong cast of off-Broadway veterans as well as Hardin, currently on Transparent, but best known as Jan on The Office. She has the play’s juiciest role as Toni, a harridan who defends her family honor with blind rage. The most repellent character of the evening, she is rendered vulnerable by the fact that not even her own son wants to live with her. But Hardin barely explores that assuaging aspect, leaving us with the limited emotional dimensions of Toni's thorny side.

Ting sometimes struggles with a densely populated stage, often leaving his actors rooted to a spot or plopped down on the sofa in scenic designer Mimi Lien's disheveled living room. And while he adeptly illustrates the dilemma and the strong themes of the work, in a play characterized by anger and hurt, he’s more skilled at exploring the former than the latter.

Three hours later, the Lafayettes are pretty much where we met them, which is perfectly appropriate. Rhys uses a racial epithet to describe his Jewish Aunt Rachel, and we know that the ugly family tradition has been safely handed down to the next generation. “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing has happened,” said Winston Churchill. In the end, that’s precisely what the Lafayette family members do.

Cast: Zarah Mahler, Robert Beitzel, Melora Hardin, Missy Yager, David Bishins, Will Tranfo, Grace Kaufman, Alexander James Rodriguez
Director: Eric Ting
Playwright: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Set designer: Mimi Lien
Costume designer: Laura Bauer

Lighting designer: Christopher Kuhl
Sound designer: Matt Tierney
Presented by: Center Theatre Group