|L-R: Shawn Fagan, Diane Davis, Nick Selting, Betsy Aidem, and David Aaron Baker. Photo: Carol Rosegg|
By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by David Kennedy
Westport Country Playhouse
Through Sept. 2
By Lauren Yarger
Plays about dysfunctional families win lots of prizes for their playwrights, and Appropriate, by McArthur Genius grant recipient Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is no exception. The play, getting a run at Westport Country Playhouse, won the 2014 Obie Award for Best New American Play and as you might suspect, as with most plays of this genre, there is a lot of yelling.
The Lafayettes have assembled at their crumbling family mansion in Arkansas following the death of their father. Single mom Toni (Betsy Aidem) and her son, Rhys (Nick Selting) are surprised when her two brothers join them for the auction of the home and its contents (full of hoarded items presenting an overwhelming sorting job thanks to Scenic Design by Andrew Boyce.) Bo (David Aaron Baker ) has been helping foot some bills over the years, but has been pretty much absent, preferring to enjoy life away from the plantation with his Jewish wife, Rachael (Diane Davis) and children, Cassie (Allison Winn) and Ainsley (Christian Michael Camporin).
Their other brother, Franz (Shawn Fagan) took off years ago following a problem with drugs and an incident involving inappropriate sexual relations with a minor. He turns up with "flower-child" girlfriend River (Anna Crivelli), to make amends, but his siblings suspect he might just be interested in his share of the profits from the sale. Crivelli, a recent graduate of the Yale School of Drama, makes Rachael silly and likable and provides a much needed comedic break in the dark play.
While trying to politely maneuver around each other and sort through the items in the house, the family makes a very disturbing discovery and questions are raised about their father's prejudices and whether he and the family have been influenced by White Supremacist legacy. River is sensitive to spirits and those buried in the white and slave graveyards on the property might not be resting peacefully with what has taken place there.
Jacobs-Jenkins (Everybody, War, Gloria, An Octoroon and Neighbors) is a rising star on New York stages. He writes about timely subjects and provokes thought, but this play is a bit problematic. The first and second acts of Appropriate are absorbing, but the third act tends to go off on a tangent, becomes confusing and extends the run time to a too-long two hours and 45 minutes. A natural, and dramatic ending is lost in a series of unexplained scenes. Some important points about the disturbing items found aren't made and an opportunity for dramatic discussion is lost.
The family secret here is a bit unique. I won't name it so as not to spoil. I wasn't aware of such practices, but then again, my family is nowhere near as dysfunctional as defined by most playwrights, and Jacobs-Jenkins goes for commonplace here. Everyone has done some pretty horrible things and no one likes anyone else. Two hours and 45 minutes of people yelling at each other is a bit hard to take and the only difference in tone level attempted by Director David Kennedy is for Bo, who uses softer tones and shows some layers as he wimps out and leaves the leadership of his own family to Rachael, who goes from the outsider, trying to be the helpful sister-in-law, to mama grizzly defending her children.
The racial issues raised as the family struggles to come to terms with their past as very relevant given the polar political ideologies separating Americans today. The solution, however, seems to be the same: scream about your hatred and don't really solve anything.
The design team includes Emily Rebholz, costume design; Matthew Richards, lighting design; and Fitz Patton, sound design.
Performances are Tuesday at 7 pm, Wednesday at 2 and 8 pm, Thursday and Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 3 and 8 pm. and Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets start at $30: westportplayhouse.org; 203-227-4177.