The Hayes theater is the Broadway home of Off Broadway mainstay Second Stage and a happy one for prior occupants like Between Riverside and Crazy but woe be any tall person confined to the middle of an aisle. Appropriate, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, aims to discomfit, so I reassured myself that twisting and untwisting my legs for the better part of three hours would enhance the experience. And so it did–though the play was doing just fine on its own without my impaired circulation.
Appropriate, which bowed Off Broadway a decade ago, is the playwright’s Main Stem debut, and it raises a ruckus. It’s a “white” play written by a black author, though blackness is very much the elephant in the room, or, rather, plantation, a crumbling edifice in southeast Arkansas whose contents are being sold off by the Lafayette siblings after the death of their reclusive father. Toni (Sarah Paulson) arrives on the scene a hot mess, with her screwed-up son Rhys (Graham Campbell) in tow and a lot of baggage resulting from her recent divorce and job loss. Flying in from New York is Bo (Corey Stoll), an even-keeled if somewhat condescending businessman, his holding-it-together wife Rachel (Succession costar Natalie Gold), and their two kids, 13-year-old Cassidy (Alyssa Emily Marvin) and eight-year-old Ainsley (Everett Sobers). Toni quickly starts picking at the highly disciplined (and Jewish) Rachel like a scab, adding to the heat of summer. But temperatures really rise when the third Lafayette sib, Franz (Michael Esper) arrives via a pried-open window, after a restless decade away from the family. He’s come at the behest of his fiancée River (Elle Fanning), a crystals-and-candles vegan all but chanting peace and harmony. Needless to say Toni finds a new target for her inexhaustible exasperation, and before you can say “August: Osage County” the family is at odds, under their breath at first, then graduating to open warfare.
Tracy Letts’ classic is kin to this show, but Jacobs-Jenkins makes the racial undercurrent, the “appropriation,” more explicit. After amusing, if seemingly aimless, bickering the locus of the play is produced, a photo album and specimen jars found among dad’s possessions. We never get too good a look at them but it’s clear they’re full of atrocity photos of African Americans and desiccated souvenirs of a brutal time not long passed. At first no one wants to deal with them–too terrible, and a clash with the myth of the father peddled by Toni, whose idea of keeping everything together is concealing awful truths and lashing out at Franz (“Frank” appears to be his given name, “Franz” an invention of River’s), who has clearer memories of dad in his tyrannical dotage, and Rachel (who is dismissed with the c- and k-words). “For the sake of the children” the album becomes a hot potato, passed from character to character–but everyone is a child here, deformed by legacies, and the adult children fall to even more vicious squabbling when “Facebook” and “the internet” reveal that such racist remnants have considerable value, way more than the house, which turns nice guy Bo’s head in one of several reversals that occur. (The playwright has elected to keep the time frame of the play the same as when it was written, before the more au courant YouTube and TikTok.)
Director Lila Neugebauer knows how to a simmer a storyline (her credits include other work by Jacobs-Jenkins and Letts) and this one boils along nicely, to the thrum of cicadas (Bray Poor and Will Pickens did the omnipresent sound), ending with a brawl and an absurdist blackout that’s a perfect, harrowing, ambiguous capper–except that’s not the finale, as the playwright takes things a scene further. This keeps the scenic designers at dots busy with their impressive set and gives the horribly wonderful Paulson a haymaker of a monologue, but exposes the two-dimensionality of the piece. Jacobs-Jenkins (who’s writing a Purple Rain stage musical) toys with incendiary ideas but never lets them catch fire. Superbly acted though they are the characters (some given lurid backstories) never rise above types, and our investment is more in the actors than in the people they’re playing. For all the frank talk it’s frustratingly coy as well, and might have been more…inappropriate. My legs could have taken it.