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A CurtainUp Review

"It's different from what I imagined.. .More. . . Gone with the Wind, less... hoarding."
— River, the spiritual young girlfriend of the youngest of three siblings who meet . up in the crumbling former plantation that is indeed nothing like Scarlett O'Hara's Tara in its hey day.
L-Right: Joanna Day, Michael Laurence, Patch Darragh and Maddie Corman (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Just when you think you've seen just about every twist and turn in the genre of dysfunctional family drama, along comes Brandon Jacob-Jenkins with his Lafayettes, whose problems and long festering resentments could keep several psychotherapists busy for years. Think alcoholism, pedophelia, mental and marital instability, anti-Semitism and racism.

Clearly there's no shortage of dysfunctional elements here. But what makes Appropriate more than just another trip to much mined theatrical territory is that it's a comic variation of Tracy Letts's August: Osage County with its issues and secrets boiling over without being really resolved, and a subtly original and funny yet serious take on this dramatic genre. Given that the grounds around the decaying former plantation where Apparition include a family as well as a slave cemetery, it might also seem like a kin of Sam Shepherd's Buried Child.

It shouldn't matter that the playwright is an African-American and his characters in his Southern Gothic serio-comedy are all white people who at some point illustrate the title's antonymous meaning. But in this case it adds an ironic piquancy to that cunningly apt title.

Just as we hear but never see the cicadas noisily setting the mood for what's to come, we never see what's in the photo albums found among the recently deceased Lafayette paterfamilias's incredible mess of accummulated junk.

The images in those albums are Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins' version of the elephant following the candidate for the asthma drug in that omnipresent, prime time TV commercial — his way of slyly appropriating the Lafayette's explosive reunion to not just unpack their baggage full of personal issues but also confront them with their familial ties to buried secrets dating back to one of our country's darkest chapters.

Liesl Tommy, who directed Appropriate at DC's Wooly Mammoth Theatre last year, is again at the helm for its New York premiere. And Clint Ramos has recreated the living room and tall staircase of the dark and excessively cluttered mansion that the dead patriarch intended to turn into a bed and breakfast. This nightmarish museum that's not only worthless but mired in debt deserves its own star billing.

Ms. Tommy is working with a new cast of actors playing the contentious extended family at the Signature's Alice Griffin Jewel Box space. All make the most of this young playwright's ability to create believable, nuanced characters, rather than the caricatures they could easily be in other hands.

It's the need to liquidate the estate and pay off the debt resulting from neglected mortgage payments, that has brought dead daddy's children and assorted family members to Arkansas from Atlanta, New York and Portland, Oregon. The most volatile is the oldest daughter Toni(Johanna Day). Being the messy estate's executor has exacerbated the tensions resulting from a recent failed marriage, career and mother- difficulties have turned her into a hostile and judgmental shrew. However, she's seems to be the only sibling with fond memories of her father, though the suddenly discovered album proves to be another assault on her equilibrium. Ms. Day embodies these tensions with palpable intensity and also indicates.

Middle brother Bo (Michael Laurence) seems a lot more put-together and capable of settling the estate problems and return to his upscale New York life. He's accompanied by his wife Rachael (Maddie Corman), who's brought along their two children (Izzy Hanson-Johnston as Cassidy and Alex Dreier as Ainsley) "to experience some of Daddy's childhood before it up and disappears" even though Bo has no love of that childhood. In fact he has spent as little time as possible revisiting it and now has little compunction about capitalizing on that album rather than agonize over the photographs' moral implications.

Day and Laurence convincingly tap into the ties beneath the their sibling hostilities. Their final confrontation is a genuine heart-tugger.

Franz (Patch Darragh), the youngest sibling who's been the Lafayette family's enfant terrible since his teens is an unexpected presence. No one has known his whereabouts for ten years, nor has he kept up with their lives. But though he only found out about his father's death after the funeral, he's now come with his much younger full of New-Age wisdom girlfriend River (Sonya Harum). While Franz has come to make peace with and become part of the family again, the constantly enraged Toni doesn't buy into either his good intentions or recovery from his addictive tendencies.

The basic situation revolves around the need to clean up the house and settle the problem of paying off the debt to the bank. But what distinguishes this essentially familiar setup is the way the playwright builds the ever escalating conflicts and the challenge of dealing with the shocking newly discovered family secrets with humor and skillful character development.

The other worldly River, is a dropout from a more conventional life as the daughter of two lawyers. She turns out to have absorbed some of her parents' clear thinking. And Bo's somewhat annoying though amusing wife is humanized by the play's move into a less comic and more poignantly tragic mode.

Even the kids aren't just there but vivid presences. Izzy Hanson-Johnston's precocious thirteen-year-old Cassidy is a delightful standout. And though young Ainsley doesn't get to do more than make boisterous entrances and exits, one of those entrances needs no words to make it clear that Ray Lafayette wasn't exactly a grandpa a kid could take pride in. Toni's son Rhys (Mike Faist) has some good moments. His difficulties with the law, his mother and sexual identity seem to have gotten lost in the overall abundance of problems.

Lighting designer Lap Chi Chu's brings out the eeriness of Clint Ramos's mess of a set. Ramos, also does excellent double duty as costume designer. Though it's not usual, perhaps this production should have included program credits for the prop movers who during an understandably longer than usual intermission manage to remove much of the clutter for a somewhat neater second act.

Ultimately, Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins paints an entertaining yet critical portrait of a group of flawed human beings. Without preaching, he makes us understand why places like the Lafayette homestead will always be haunted by memories too disturbing to look at closely. His entertaining play proves that when done right, the dysfunctional family, no matter what the color of the characters' or their creator's skin, can still have the power to surprise and impress.

Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Liesl Tommy
Cast: Maddie Corman (Rachael),Patch Darragh (Franz),Johanna Day (Toni), Alex Dreier (Ainsley),Mike Faist (Rhys),Izzy Hanson-Johnston (Cassidy), Sonya Harum (River),Michael Laurence (Bo)
Scenic & Costume Design: Clint Ramos
Lighting: Lap Chi Chu
Original Music & Sound: Broken Chord
Fight director: Rick Sordolet & Christian Kelly-Sordelet
Dialect Coach: Ben Furey
Stage Manager: Kyle Gates
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, includes a 20-minute intermission
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, Pershing Square Signature Theater Center
From 2/25/14;opening 3/16/14 closing 4/13/14.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 12/14 press preview
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