Appropriate | 2hrs 40mins. One intermission. | Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street | 212-541-4516
“Someone has to defend the dead,” declares Toni (Sarah Paulson). “Someone has to defend the truth.” Enraged by claims that her late father was an antisemite, Toni is appealing to her brother, Bo (Corey Stoll), whose Jewish wife, Rachel (Natalie Gold), has the receipts: casual slurs made when the old man thought no one was listening. Toni’s incensed, while also a hypocrite; neither she nor her siblings think to defend the dignity of the dead, lynched Black people whose images they recently found in a picture album.
That gruesome collection of antique photographs, discovered as family members clear out a cluttered ex-planation home in Arkansas for auction, is something of a MacGuffin in the world of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s savagely subversive Appropriate. A cultural critique of white privilege disguised as a classic three-act family drama (in two lopsided acts), the play arrives on Broadway nearly ten years after its New York premiere, now in a far stronger production and for a public primed to discuss race and legacy. Crucially, the action is set in 2011, among the extended members of a white family whose greed and inability to read the room ring more credibly in the pre-BLM era.
Back to the MacGuffin. How can a book of lynching photos—horrific mementos of the torture and killing of Black people—be something as trivial as a plot trigger? That’s Jacobs-Jenkins’s stealthy M.O.: a Black writer, his slow-burning satire opens a window into white lives consumed by narcissism and materialism. Siblings lashing into each other after the death of a parent is old as Agamemnon. By adding the specter of a father’s active participation in racist atrocities (just wait ’til the hood comes out), the author upends moral expectations while denying us narrative resolution. Upon finding the pictures, you might hope that Toni, Bo, and their baby brother Franz (Michael Esper) would do the right thing, put aside grudges, and face hard truths. Instead, the album becomes grist for the trio’s self-absorbed blame-gaming and gold-digging.
Let’s meet the gargoyles. Toni is a piece of work; played as a whirlwind of aggrieved self-righteousness by a gleefully malicious Paulson, this eldest child finds her life falling apart in the wake of a divorce and her teenage son’s conviction for selling drugs. She routinely and meekly begs her lanky boy, Rhys (Graham Campbell) for a hug, which he gives with all the relish of doing the dishes. Superficially saner Bo lives with Rachel and their two kids in New York, where he expects to be downsized from his magazine any day. Finally, Franz (né Frank) is thirtysomething going on 16, a former alcoholic and drug addict with an eye for younger women. Illegally younger. Accompanying Franz is 23-year-old River (Elle Fanning), a hippie chick from Oregon who learns there’s not enough sage in the universe to dispel the house’s bad mojo. Everyone has secrets and damage. The photos become a hot potato that passes through everyone’s hands and ends up bringing decades of resentment to the surface. (UnkleDave’s Fight House, a stage combat company, makes the inevitable group brawl most gratifying.)
Honest question: Why would anyone want to spend two and a half hours with these creeps? Jacobs-Jenkins may be appropriating and winking at the dysfunctional family epic usually associated with writers such as Eugene O’Neill and, latterly, Tracy Letts (not to mention August Wilson), but he invests the experiment with virtuosic dramatic control and emotional intelligence. These rich and unpredictable characters who can be viciously selfish one moment and vulnerable the next. Franz may seem like a walking bundle of 12-step clichés, but he’s endowed with enough acute human frailty—and brought to agonized life by the outstanding Esper—that your heart goes out to him. Then you learn more about his past and want to heave your dinner into the aisle. Rachel is the most decent figure and River is calculating but never truly vile, but they’re all tainted by association with the rotten fruit of a poison root. And don’t look to the younger generation for moral guidance; to them, the lynching photos have interchangeable value with porn or memes.
Clearly relishing their juicy roles, the dream cast has been impeccably directed by Lila Neugebauer, who burnishes the comedy and cruelty to a bright sheen. Her production would not cohere and hurtle as it does without its superbly unified design. The collective dots creates the perfect spacious, seen-better-days living room with genteel touches from the past. A pastoral mock-fresco adorns one wall, a vintage chandelier dangles from above and allows lighting designer Jane Cox the chance to cast its spidery shadow by the staircase. Cox lights nighttime scenes with intricate, textured dimness, pierced by the occasional smartphone or candle. The extraordinary soundscape by Bray Poor and Will Pickens amplifies and distorts a cacophony of cicadas between scenes, like voices of the dead clamoring for justice, punctuated by Cox’s brutal, horror-movie blackouts.
I worry this review dropped too many spoilers, but nothing will prepare you for the sensory barrage at the end of Appropriate, where this haunted house succumbs to the ravages of time. Again, design drives dramaturgy (although Jacobs-Jenkins is novelistic in his stage directions): the stage, mostly devoid of humans, becomes a site of decaying historical matter, artifacts animated by rot, gravity, and invasive nature. What should we do with our inheritance, the play asks: flee it, monetize it, or burn it all down?