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Dead Man’s Party: “Appropriate” reviewed

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play Appropriate, premiering on Broadway in a spellbinding Second Stage Theatre production after an off-Broadway run nearly a decade ago, is an astonishing work of American fact and fiction. Tracing the fraught reunion of three siblings gathered at their late late father’s Arkansas plantation, it manages to entwine a richly textured family drama, a haunting meditation on time, and a ferocious parable about the protraction of racism as indelibly as the country’s reliance on history and delusion.

Director Lila Neugebauer taps right into the heart of both the playwright’s intentions and his ensemble’s humanity. These include youngest brother Franz (Michael Esper) and his even younger fiancée, the hyppish River (Elle Fanning); the older, successful Bo (Corey Stoll), his cautious wife Rachael (Natalie Gold) and their two children Cassidy and Ainsley (Alyssa Emily Lincoln Cohen and an alternating Lincoln Cohen and Everett Sobers); and finally Toni (Sarah Paulson), the eldest Lafayette sibling whose life has been spent taking care of her contentious brothers, fraying marriage, wayward son Rhys (Graham Campbell) and, through his last years, her dying father.

Each character is fully sketched with wit, personality, and warmth by Jacobs-Jenkins and are uniformly realized by this cast with a dropped-in vitality impossible to shake off. Their volatile dynamics alone could fuel a fine play—or several dozen pinball machines—but they are complicated (or perhaps simplified) by the discovery of a disturbing photo album containing graphic images of murdered Black people. The siblings had come to handle the auction of their father’s estate and tiptoe around family issues, perhaps making off with some additional inheritance, yet this is an heirloom none are eager or willing to confront.

Jacobs-Jenkins’ work here is often terrifically confrontational. The family drama continues, sometimes seeming a farcical whodunit, even as their inability to dispose of the album reaches Buñuelian levels, and the experience of watching itself generates its own set of immense pleasures and conflicts. Who in the audience is reacting more to the financial stakes than to the spiritual ones? How might any one person react in such a case? What visual cue might finally cross a line, and what then?

(Visually, by the way, the production elements more than match its human ones, with costumes by Dede Ayite, alien lighting by Jane Cox, sound by Bray Poor and Will Pickens, and an exquisite mansion set, by the design collective dots, which gives way to a stunning final sequence.)

Appropriate is a masterwork the likes of which crop up a handful of times per generation.  Jacobs-Jenkins has crafted parallel statements on our relationships to ourselves and our families, convenient narratives and difficult truths, and ownership and entitlement, tied together by a profound clarity regarding the self-cannibalizing exploitation engendered by a pathological need to profit at all costs. Saluting the greatest works of modern theatre and the darkest lessons of human history, it deftly ties together the disparate strands of a country beholden to a state of perpetual haunting.