The Family that Plays Together…
BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE
If one takes the meaning of the word “appropriate” in the sense of stealing (or more accurately, “purloining”), then Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ new play Appropriate now at Second Stage is a glorious act of literary thievery that also manages to be completely original, funny, heartbreaking, and much more.
From Chekhov, we get the house about to be sold and the dark memories that haunt it. From O’Neill, we have the drug-addled mother. From Williams, we get the characters with dangerous secrets and Gothic drama. From Tolstoy we get the uniquely unhappy family, and from Wilde, we get a story “crowded with incident.” Throw in a few pages of recovery literature, and you’re good to go. Well, not quite. Add in playwright Jacobs-Jenkins own deliciously twisted perspective and mordant outlook on contemporary families and culture, and the result is a play that at once has classic undertones and is brand spanking new.
In the classic mode, a family has gathered one weekend in their father’s Arkansas plantation house after the patriarch’s death to liquidate the estate and hopefully pay off the debts. As tends to happen in times of great stress, old wounds are opened, dark secrets revealed, and, as you might imagine, it all goes to hell in very short order.
Jacobs-Jenkins has a firm hand on his characters and–importantly–trusts his audience. Thus, the expository opening of the play is rich and funny, fluid and immediately draws us into the world. Jacobs-Jenkins knows how to provide enough information to let us know how these people are, flaws and all, and sufficiently trusts and respects the intelligence of the audience to understand what’s going on. Indeed, there are moments later in the play where the audience gets to a twist before the characters and that adds to the grim—and grisly—fun of the whole enterprise.
It would be a disservice to recount the plot because that would spoil the fun of discovery, which is inherent to the success of this play. Suffice it to say, then, that there are issues. Toni, the executor of the estate, is immobilized by grief and full of rage and resentment at her father’s death and her acrimonious divorce. Her son Rhys is lost and disaffected. Toni’s brother Bo has come from New York with his wife Rachel and two children, Cassidy, who at 13 thinks she’s “almost an adult” and 8-year-old Ainsley. N’er-do-well Frank (now calling himself Franz and newly sober) has found his way back to the family with his girlfriend River. It is, to put it mildly, a combustible situation. Moreover, Jacobs-Jenkins keeps introducing twists in the relationships and the situations that are unexpected but completely original and always–or mostly–make sense. It’s how the classic/contemporary dynamic informs the play and doesn’t let the audience go for two hours and 45 minutes. (It’s worth mentioning that in a world that seems to clamor for snack-sized, 90 minute, intermission-less plays, Jacobs-Jenkins makes a banquet out of his story.)
Under the direction of Lila Neugebauer, the play is vibrant and alive, deftly balancing its inherent family comedy, darker subject matters, and emotional complexities of the characters. The scenic design by dots is a mansion in the midst of entropy, and the lighting by Jane Cox includes some remarkable effects.
It’s the cast, that makes this play, however. Sarah Paulson is a dynamo as Toni, filled with rage and consumed with sorrow, refusing to accept any other reality than the one that sustains her. Michael Esper is endearing as the lost and apologetic Franz. Corey Stoll gives Bo levels of complexity that are consistently interesting as a man who seems to have it all together. Elle Fanning is delightful as the new-agey and underestimated but smart-as-a-whip River. Natalie Gold is forceful as tiger-mom Rachel, and Graham Campbell as Toni’s son Rhys is a morass of late-adolescent conflicts. Alyssa Emily Marvin is one of the finds of this production as a very contemporary teen. She has a strong stage presence and is well-matched to the Broadway veterans with whom she shares the stage.
While much of the story is over-the-top, anyone with a family, and particularly those who have dealt with a parent’s death, will find much to relate to in this play. It’s an exciting evening, even if you end up glad that this isn’t your family.
Second Stage at the Hayes Theater
24o West 43rd Street
Tues, Thurs, Fri 7 p.m.; Weds, Sat 8 p.m.; Weds, Sat 2 p.m.; Sun 3 p.m.
Tickets from $159
2 hours, 45 mins, 1 intermission
Posted February 9, 2024
Photos by JOAN MARCUS