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  • Jonathan Kalb

More Sickly Mansions

There are lots of reasons Americans have always loved family-dustup plays and exalted them with high honors. Families are one of the only social units nearly all of us recognize as valid, respectable, and universally relevant. Also, family dramas have historically been among America’s most effective means of hiding our politics from ourselves, keeping the personal and political in neatly separate boxes, the better to prove that our sufferings are actually tragic curses of a conveniently vague villain called “human nature,” rather than solvable structural problems in our social arrangements.

We’re fortunate to live at a time when lots of good playwrights (Taylor Mac, Jackie Sibblies-Drury, Will Eno, and Young Jean Lee, for instance) have been chipping away at the hallowed family-reunion-showdown genre with brilliant sendups, queerings, and deconstructions. One of my favorite of these cheeky reimaginings—Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s gripping 2013 play Appropriate—has just opened in a new production at the Helen Hayes. This sizzling show directed by Lila Neugebauer is Jacobs-Jenkins’s Broadway debut, and it seems to me the must-see theater event of the winter.

Appropriate gathers the three scions of the venerable Lafayette family at their former-plantation home in Arkansas for an estate sale and auction. There they discover shocking evidence that their recently deceased father, a respected and high-powered Washington lawyer, was probably a Klan member. This bombshell is a deviously barbed twist on the relatively mild secrets about addiction, infidelity, incest and cruelty revealed in all the canonized family plays by O’Neill, Inge, Lanford Wilson, Tracy Letts, and others.

The album of lynch photos the Lafayette kids find, along with what appear to be jars of fetishized bones, are so troubling and explicit that everyone’s reflexive impulses to suppress, ignore and rationalize them are instantly obvious and ridiculous. We recognize their bumbling as a sign that this play is not about repression or avoidance, like most of its forebears. It’s rather a satirical x-ray of what such plays usually present as a supposedly normal and typical world. The Lafayettes are educated, well-meaning, 21st-century white people who can’t square the violent racism in front of them with their professed values. Jacobs-Jenkins makes them wriggle, squirm and twitch under his merciless magnifying glass as all their new and old resentments come to a raucous boil.

To me, what’s really distinctive about Appropriate is its larky yet portentous tone. It may be thoroughly realistic but it’s also comically self-conscious in the way it constantly spotlights its characters’ many blind spots with stiletto punch-lines. The play isn’t written with love, or even affection, but it’s not exactly written with hate either—despite the rage that its lead character, eldest daughter and estate executor Toni, exhibits from beginning to end. Jacobs-Jenkins’s POV here feels like that of a bemused anthropologist—he was in fact an Anthropology major at Princeton—creating a document for examination by those who might come across it in the far future. It makes perfect sense that the last act culminates in a time-lapse coda showing what happens to the plantation house over uncountable years. Jacobs-Jenkins imagines a distant world in which the white cluelessness he examines has become an artifact to be unearthed and, perhaps, interpreted with fresh eyes.

The heart of Neugebauer’s production is Sarah Paulson’s ferocious portrayal of Toni, the divorced mother of a teenage “fuck-up” (Rhys, played by Graham Campbell) who has been on the scene resentfully caring for old dad as he declined. Toni is so unrelentingly bitter, so full of toxic resentment at everyone but Rhys, that she makes Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf seem serene. Her greeting to Frank (Michael Esper), her long-lost brother, unseen for a decade: “What in fuck’s sake is going on? What are you doing here?” Her hello to Frank’s girlfriend River (Elle Fanning): “WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?!” And this is just in the first scene. The role of Toni is like Shakespeare’s Lear requiring the actor to start out at peak fury and then figure out how to modulate her performance for two and half hours to give the character variety. Paulson is masterful at this, finding so many interesting variations on Toni’s basic surliness—motherly defensiveness, sisterly indignation, in-law envy—that she actually elicits a thimbleful of sympathy in the end.

All the other actors deserve deep bows too. Esper is thoroughly convincing as the earnest prodigal addict and pedophile Frank (now rebranded as Franz), returning to stick his opportunistic black-sheep’s neck back into the teeth of his sibling wolves. Fanning, for her part, understands every unacknowledged sharp edge around River’s supposedly tranquil New Age softness, an inheritance from her lawyer parents. Corey Stoll is also excellent as yuppie middle child Bo (short for Beauregarde), who, being happily married with two kids, convinces himself that his wealth and even-temper can lift him above the family fray. That he does come through the storm relatively intact is thanks mostly to his poised and courageous wife Rachael, played by Natalie Gold. Gold is the only one in the play with the sangfroid to go toe-to-toe with Paulson in high dudgeon. You honestly expect these sisters-in-law to draw blood in their climactic confrontation.

In all probability, most people reading this now at the end of December are nestled, lodged, resignedly decamped, or otherwise hunkered down with their families. My advice to you: take a break from all that bliss, gratification, resentment, innuendo, violence, depravity or whatever it is, and go see Appropriate. Whatever your mood, mansion, or myth of origin, this play will unsettle it and make you reflect on it anew.

Photos: Joan Marcus

By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Directed by Lila Neugebauer

The Hayes Theater

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