31 March 2014


This season at the Signature Theatre Company has been a different experience for me.  For a combination of reasons, first the constitution of the schedule as an All-Premiere Season made up of plays by various writers rather than a series from one playwright and, second, because my companion, Diana, and I booked Horton Foote’s The Old Friends before we settled on our subscription, not only were all the plays new ones in New York, but many of the writers are artists whom I’ve never encountered before or with whom I only had minimal experience.  Will Eno (The Open House, reported on ROT on 16 March) and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins are entirely new to me, despite their track records and reputations.  So when Diana and I met at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row for the evening performance of Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate on Friday, 21 March, I had no idea what I was about to see.  As I’ve explained in the past, I avoid reading reviews until after I’ve had my own say—except for the New York Times notice because it’s delivered to my apartment.  In this case, however, the reviewer was Ben Brantley and, as I’ve also said before on this blog, I more often find myself on the opposite side of the opinion spectrum from Brantley than not, so I basically only noted that he gave Appropriate a rave notice and left it at that until I saw the production for myself.  So, here we go.

STC’s New York première of Appropriate, directed in the Alice Griffin Jewelbox Theatre, the miniature proscenium house at the Signature Center, by Liesl Tommy, started performances on 25 February and opened on 16 March; it was originally scheduled to run until 6 April but has been extended through 13 April.  The play’s world première was at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville from 5 March  to 7 April 2013 and then it had a dual opening in Washington, D.C., at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company from 4 November to 1 December 2013 (also staged by Tommy), and in Chicago at the Victory Gardens Theater, 15 November through 14 December 2013 (directed by Gary Griffin, who helmed the ATL début as well).  The play was developed with Tommy and shown in staged readings at STC as part of Jacobs-Jenkins’s Residency Five stint, and he’s said he did substantial revisions in the spring of 2013 between the ATL début and the D.C.-Chicago presentations. 

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins lives in Brooklyn now, a playwright, dramaturg, and performer.  His first full-length play, Neighbors, was produced by the Public Theater’s Lab program (première, 2010), L.A.’s Matrix Theatre, and Boston’s Company One; the play received its UK première at the HighTide Festival in Suffolk last May.  His other plays include The ChangeFace #1-3ThirstZooHeart!!!, and Content.  As a performer, he’s also half of the duo enemyResearch, with whom he’s created and performed in Garbage, Schechnershirts, and The Amateurs.  Jacobs-Jenkins’s plays have been seen at Prelude, CUNY’s festival of new theater and performance, in 2008 and ’09; the Public Theater; New York Theatre Workshop; Soho Rep; P.S. 122; Ars Nova; Dixon Place; Providence Black Repertory; Chicago’s Links Hall; the McCarter Theatre in Princeton; the Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles; Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis; Boston’s Company One; Theater Bielefeld in Bielefeld, Germany; and the National Theatre in London.  He’s a former NYTW Playwriting fellow, an alumnus of the Hemispheric Institute's EMERGENYC Program, as well as a member of the Soho Rep Writers/Directors Lab, the 2009 Public Theater Emerging Writers Group, and the Ars Nova Playgroup.  The young writer’s a 2009 Princess Grace Award winner for Playwriting and the 2009-10 Dorothy Streslin Playwriting Fellow at Soho Rep.  He also spent a year in Berlin, Germany, on a 2009 Fulbright Fellowship and he’s the winner of the 2013 Sundance Theatre Institute Tennessee Williams Award.  He’s working on a commission from Lincoln Center Theater/LCT3 and Yale Rep just announced that his newest play, War, will début there in November.  Appropriate was a finalist for this year’s Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History. 

Jacobs-Jenkins, who is black, is a man who apparently doesn’t like to be specific about his age—back in 2010, he told New York Times reporter Patrick Healy “he was in his mid-20s”—but should be about 29 now by my calculation.  Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Jacobs-Jenkins graduated from St. John’s College High School (“half military, half Catholic”), one of the oldest schools in the city, as valedictorian of the class of 2002.  His mother, a lawyer and one of the first African-American women to hold a degree from Harvard Law School, and his father, a dentist who worked in the Maryland state prisons, weren’t patrons of the theater, but they took him to see Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Studio Theatre when he was 14 and the experience made a lasting impression on him.  Jacobs-Jenkins proceeded to Princeton University for a 2006 undergraduate degree in anthropology and followed that with an internship at the New Yorker, then New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for a masters in Performance Studies, including courses in the Department of Dramatic Writing. 

Jacobs-Jenkins has “this vivid memory” of the Studio’s Godot.  “I had no idea what I was looking at,” the writer says now, “but it was doing something to me.”  Besides being “this moderately opaque piece of existentialist drama,” the teenaged playwright-to-be found that “two black actors had been cast in the lead roles,” a decision by director (and Studio Theatre founder and then-artistic director) Joy Zinoman that stirred a lot of controversy in the Washington press and among the Studio’s audiences.  It also brought a cease-and-desist order from Samuel Beckett’s estate, which also objected to “the kinds of improvisations that would have driven Beckett up the wall.”  The casting “had managed to ‘racialize’ Beckett in this bizarre way” and Jacobs-Jenkins found himself “completely riveted.”  The young teen felt that “the ‘race-blind’ concept was rubbing up against all these questions of being and language and modernity and abstraction in a strange way that I was probably responding to on some subconscious level.” 

The incipient dramatist spotted the name of a former grade-school classmate in the Godot program and says, “I thought, if he can do it.”  When he got to high school, young Jacobs-Jenkins began auditioning for plays and in his senior year, he actually performed the role of Vladimir in Godot, “which,” he recalled, “was a disaster.”  He continued to act at Princeton, but he says he got tired of being “conceptually cast,” playing roles where his race was a factor in the decision.  He was taking courses in fiction writing, focusing on short stories, but when he was told he couldn’t take any more creative writing classes, he turned to playwriting.  The responses he got when he read his scenes, unlike any he got from his prose—his professor told him, “I think you’re a playwright and I think you should deal with that”—led him to NYU and the Department of Dramatic Writing. 

In all of Jacobs-Jenkins’s plays, the writer uses “blackness as a ‘material.’”  Neighbors had black characters in blackface “perform the once-familiar, now-shocking gestures of minstrelsy.”  An Octoroon (premières in April at SoHo Rep) is an adaption of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama, The Octoroon.  In Appropriate, there are no black characters, “[b]ut the subject is unmistakably the elephant in the room.”  The estranged members of the white Lafayette family return to Arkansas and the derelict plantation that was their former home to dispose of the possessions of Ray, their recently deceased father and grandfather, in an estate sale and sell the property to cover his debts.  First to arrive is the youngest son, Franz (formerly Frank) and his young girlfriend, River—who’s sensitive to spirits.  Joining them are sister Toni, the oldest sibling, and her teenaged son, Rhys, followed by Bo, the elder brother, his wife, Rachael, and their two children, 8-year-old Ainsley and precocious 13-year-old daughter, Cassidy.  (I continue my accidental string of performances with boy actors.  This makes four.  Though Rhys, about 18, is played by 23-year-old Mike Faist, Ainsley is portrayed by Alex Dreier, 10, who has no lines but performs a chilling and emblematic visual moment in the play.  Appropriate is my only show so far this season with a female juvenile, though.)  

Among the hoarded mementos and junk, the family finds an album of photos of dead black people, all apparently lynched.  The discovery sends the family into paroxysms of fractious confrontations, forgotten histories, and guilt.  Jacobs-Jenkins sees Appropriate as the last in a “sequence” that includes Neighbors and An Octoroon.  Like those plays, he says, Appropriate is “concerned with genre and the act of seeing—the moral question inherent in it—and what exactly is American about American theatre.”  He names Horton Foote, Sam Shepard, and Arthur Miller as writers he admires, and plays such as Dividing the Estate, Buried Child, Cherry Orchard, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as works that helped inspire Appropriate. 

According to his interview in the STC subscriber magazine, Jacobs-Jenkins affirms that when he started writing Appropriate, “I ended up deciding I would steal something from every play that I liked, and put all those things in a play and cook the pot to see what happens”; he acknowledges that his characters are all related to ones from the family plays he named.  (I had begun to wonder, before I saw the play, if the Jacobs-Jenkins’s title was meant to be the adjective a-PRO-pree-at, “suitable to the social situation,” or the verb a-pro-pree-ATE, “to take possession of.”  I’ve concluded that the writer intends it to be ambiguous; Jacobs-Jenkins has spoken of “appropriation” and the theater posted definitions of both senses of the word outside the Griffin.  The introduction to the STC interview with the playwright asserts, “Jacobs-Jenkins quietly imbues the topics of history, belonging, ownership, and appropriation with even greater power.”  The Lafayette siblings act ”inappropriately” throughout the play, and the photos they discover and the family history are evidence of the white establishment “appropriating” African-American culture, history, and suffering.) 

In the New York Times, reviewer Ben Brantley praised the way the dramatist “honors the time-tested recipes of those who have gone before him,” exclaiming, “[W]hat a difference a chef makes.”  Unhappily, I think Brantley’s overstated the case.  Jacobs-Jenkins’s idea may sound interesting, using recognizable memes from great writers of the past both as an homage and as a dramatic lift to help the audience slip more easily into the playwright’s world, but what ends up happening is start-to-finish déjà vu, a feeling that we’ve seen this all before.  Diana compared it to series TV, familiar situations and pedestrian writing that doesn’t elevate the drama above the predictable and expected.  (Elisabeth Vincentelli described Appropriate in the New York Post as “the kind of show where a character making an ominous discovery exclaims ‘Oh my God,’ followed by a dramatic blackout.”)  I wouldn’t state it as harshly as Diana, though.  I give Jacobs-Jenkins a great deal of credit for trying the idea and applying it to an ambitious point.  Except as parody, it probably wouldn’t ever work to borrow (dare I say ‘appropriate’?) so extensively from well-known (and often beloved) tropes in the hopes that you can détourne them for your own purposes, and perhaps Jacobs-Jenkins should have seen that earlier in the process, but I won’t dismiss his attempt to go this route. 

The writer’s ambitious idea is to look at racism in America not through the eyes and lives of those who experienced it themselves, or inherited its repercussions generations after slavery and Jim Crow, but through the lives of the supposedly privileged white Christians who have reaped the whirlwind from the white-supremacy wind their ancestors sowed.  The Lafayette family was dysfunctional long before they discovered Ray’s stash of lynching photos, but the recriminations and bitterness is redoubled when theories start to be put forth for where the pictures came from and whether Ray was actually involved somehow in the horrors they depict—and then who can profit from them now and how.  The tender threads that held the clan together at all—none of the siblings live in the same town and even their own families are in precarious shapes—are virtually ripped out and the fabric of kinship lies in shreds like the rest of the old man’s detritus.  The photos and the plantation connect the Lafayettes to their family history.  Until they find the pictures and questions start to be asked—at first, and most pointedly, by the family outsiders, River, the fiancée, and Rachael, the wife—Toni, Bo, and Franz never even questioned the implications of the old house, whose grounds include an unmarked slave burial ground as well as a family plot, or their family’s history in it.  What Jacobs-Jenkins seems to be saying is that, even if none of them, as Bo rants in frustration, had actually discriminated against anyone, let alone lynched anyone, their unreflective acceptance of a past in which their society and their forebears—all those generations of Lafayettes buried in the plot just outside the window—had perpetrated, echoes down the generations.

Jacobs-Jenkins has contrived that among this family, Toni is divorced and angry, and her son, who now wants to go live with his father, has just come off a period in juvenile detention for selling drugs at his Atlanta school.  Toni, who’d been principal of the school, lost her job over the affair.  Franz had once been convicted of sex with a minor—a girl nearly the same age as his niece Cassidy—and has had problems with drugs and alcohol.  Off the grid for 10 years, he moved from town to town so often that, now in Portland, Oregon, no one could locate him to tell him about his father’s death and the funeral, which he missed.  Franz’s current girlfriend is much younger than he and seems flaky to his sister and brother (though she may be the most grounded one in the group).  Bo’s problems may be the most complex: he doesn’t seem able to commit to anything, even defending his wife against an attack by his sister—he just doesn’t want to get in the middle of anything.  But he feels as if he’s the one bearing the financial responsibility for the plantation and his late father’s care while his job back in New York is in danger because the magazine where he works is downsizing.  Rachael, Bo’s wife, is not only an outsider (she’s from Brooklyn), but she’s a Jew (and, yes, the “K” word gets tossed about) and there are suggestions that Bo married her in part because of her outsiderness.  (I believe that Toni’s response to Rachael’s Jewishness and Bo’s defensiveness about all the evils perpetrated on all minority groups in this country’s history—disease-infested blankets given to Indians even gets a mention—and even Franz’s status as a sex-offender are all meant to be surrogates for the racism Jacobs-Jenkins is addressing but which his characters avoid confronting.  The message: A bigot is a bigot is a bigot.  They don’t discriminate among flavors of prejudice.  Bigotry is bigotry.)  The discovery of the photo album didn’t make this family a mess, but the gruesome pictures serve as a catalyst for the explosion that may have been inevitable as soon as Toni, Bo, and Franz came together in their old home. 

Though Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t state this theme in the text of Appropriate, it’s what I feel he’s trying to get at.  His vehicle may be flawed and the baggage this characters bring to the situation, not to mention the appropriations the playwright’s taken from Williams, Miller, and the others, may be getting in the way of clearly communicating his point, but I credit Jacobs-Jenkins with an intriguing and worthwhile idea to examine.  Appropriate is only his third full-length play, the second to get a full staging (An Octoroon was presented in a flawed early form at P.S. 122 in 2010, but the revised version gets its première next month) and the writer isn’t yet 30, so I’ll take this production as an encouraging and interesting stage in his maturation and watch where he goes next.  At Princeton, Jacobs-Jenkins recalls, his playwriting teacher, the screenwriter and playwright Neal Bell, told him, “I think you should keep writing plays.  You’re doing something really complicated.”  Now, maybe that’s a little heady to tell a college writer, but I’d accept the assessment now—even if the dramatist’s reach may still be exceeding his grasp.  There was too much that was thought-provoking and promising in Appropriate for me to dismiss Branden Jacobs-Jenkins out of hand. 

The script aside, Liesl Tommy’s production of Appropriate was well conceived and executed.  I don’t know Tommy’s work, but she’s been working both here and in regional rep companies for some time.  A native of Cape Town, South Africa, Tommy has also taught in schools such as NYU’s Tisch, Juilliard, and Brown University.  She worked with Jacobs-Jenkins on the development of Appropriate during his STC residency and staged the Woolly Mammoth production that followed the ATL première.  The playwright didn’t leave a whole lot to the imagination, spelling out almost every emotion and impulse, but Tommy got the actors all to pull it off as if it were the most natural of behaviors.  In her hands, the Lafayettes may be tightly wound but they manage to be believable, not to say always rational, individuals, though it wouldn’t be hard to turn them into clichés.  The production runs two hours and twenty minutes (including one intermission), but it didn’t seem long despite the sometimes predictable nature of Jacobs-Jenkins’s dramaturgy.  Tommy keeps the spinning, overloaded play focused and fluid.  She couldn’t change the melodrama into anything more substantial, and she couldn’t give the play a final resolution that Jacobs-Jenkins didn’t write, but she did keep everything from whirling off into space, which it came close to doing more than once.  (In act two, there’s a total melee, choreographed by fight directors Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet, in which nearly everyone, including the women and teenaged Rhys—who makes a flying leap at his uncle Bo that attests to his chops as an acrobatic dancer late of Newsies—takes a very active part!  It’s the family-play equivalent of a barroom brawl.)

The costumes of Clint Ramos nicely capture each character’s nature without blaring it out (the characters do that rather enough themselves), but the indisputable star of Appropriate’s physical production is Ramos’s scenic design, especially as lit by Lap Chi Chu.  The Griffin’s small playing area is completely filled with the living room interior of the Lafayette plantation, with a loftily high ceiling and a long staircase to the second-floor landing at the back.  The living room in turn is completely filled with the collected remnants of the dead man’s life of hoarding—clothes, old toys (Bo pulls out a wooden sled that looks like it might have come from the set of Citizen Kane), discarded furniture, books, and assorted junk covering every bit of floor, every surface, and every nook.  (Show Business’s Amy Stringer remarked on “the exquisite detail.”  Think Collyer Brothers.)  The house itself is decomposing like the family ancestors in the graveyard outside.  It’s not haunted, Franz assures River after they climb in through a window—but it looks as if it ought to be.  And of course, it is—although the spirits might be more attached to the people than the place.  Maybe both.  The house is so decrepit that at the end of the play, after everyone has fled, leaving it to the ravages of time, the set literally falls apart piece by piece.  The implication is too obvious, like much of Jacobs-Jenkins’s script, but the stage effect is stunning as ceilings crumble, paintings fall off the walls, and a chandelier drops.  (Phantom of the Opera has only a falling chandelier; Appropriate has an entire house!)

Chu’s lighting, which ranges from shadowy and haunting to glaring and hot like a giant interrogation spot, only enhanced Ramos’s picture.  The wall sconces glowed barely orange, providing an eerie glimmer until the rest of the lights are brought up; outside the windows, instead of moonlight or a wash of dappled sun though old trees, are a bank of spotlights shining in through the floor-to-ceiling windows as if the inhabitants of the plantation were under scrutiny by some unseen observer. 

Once again the Signature has produced a true ensemble performance, engineered by Tommy.  The characters are hardly folks I’d like to spend much time around, although River, the latter-day hippie, isn’t as hard to take as the rest if you can get around her new-ageyness, but the cast portrays them impeccably.  (Brantley said the characters are “all both unlovable and impossible not to identify with,” though I don’t entirely buy the second assertion.)  Johanna Day’s Toni is a bitch on wheels from her first entrance pretty much until she leaves the stage, but she mixes her acerbic wit with a touchy defensiveness that makes her human (if not quite sympathetic).  Her one moment of near-empathy—although she has to imagine her bothers dead to get to it—is carried off with more conviction than a less resourceful actor probably could muster; it almost doesn’t fit, but Day finds the connection in the memories she’d like to have.  Bo’s noncommittal aloofness and Franz’s man-child oddness are nicely portrayed by Michael Laurence and Patch Darragh; as hard as the characters are to take—I really just wanted someone to smack them both upside their heads and knock some common sense into them—the two actors catch the brothers convincingly. 

As the women in the two brothers’ lives, Sonya Harum’s River and Maddie Corman’s Rachael both clearly demonstrate their outsider status, Harum by simply not meshing with the family dynamic so . . . well, dynamically, and Corman by exhibiting a palpable animosity for Toni (and later for Ray) that seems both deserved and a little contrived.  (It’s actually Rachael herself who first invokes the “K” word, though Toni picks it up readily.)  The children are hints of what will become of the Lafayette clan down the generational road, and it’s still cloudy.  Rhys has already made bad choices but Faist makes him seem unfinished and a little diffident.  Away from Toni—and we have no idea what kind of man Derek, his father, is—he may have a chance to sever the tether to the Lafayette ghosts.  Precocious young Cassidy keeps reminding us that she’s “almost an adult,” and Izzy Hanson-Johnston makes her smart enough that we can just believe she, too, might be salvageable—once Rachael is back in New York safely away from the other Lafayettes.  Her little brother, Ainsley, is less of a full-blooded figure, and Dreier is called on to do little more that be a ball of energy tearing around the old homestead—which he does with terrific verve. 

It may well be that Tommy’s staging has papered over many of the faults of Jacobs-Jenkins’s script, but in my experience, most of the time that that happens, there’s something in the play on which to anchor the production.  That’s why I’ll take the STC presentation of Appropriate as an indication that this writer has a lot to offer and soon may be making a mark on U.S. stages.  (In Entertainment Weekly, Stephan Lee posited that this may be “a star-making production for” the playwright.  I’m not prepared to go that far.)  Jacobs-Jenkins already has an ear for speech, even if his dialogue can border on cliché, and his characters, if derivative, are vivid and lively.  He has a way of making them play off of one another that creates a world on the stage, but he hasn’t learned yet that less can be more, explaining everything, but saying little in the end—which, by the way, contains no resolution either to the questions raised by the photos or to the rifts in the family.  We do know that Rhys is going to live with his father, starting a new chapter perhaps, but the only other indication of a potential future is that both Franz and River have taken new names: Franz used to be Frank (apparently for François) and River was born Trisha.  New identities may suggest a new start, and Franz insists he’s not the same person who led his earlier, troubled life.  Nonetheless, as Timesman Brantley put it, when Appropriate ends, the Lafayette children “are, if anything, more confused than when it began. The decay of the house set may be Jacobs-Jenkins showing us what he sees in the Lafayette future, but it’s not in the play.

The press response seemed to be split; I came down in a sort of center position, finding flaws in the vehicle but promise in the ideas and Jacobs-Jenkins’s talent and ambition.  Reviewers appear to have either embraced the dramatist’s effort or dismissed it.  The Post’s Vincentelli felt that “while there’s very little that’s fresh in ‘Appropriate,’ the show’s still a fun ride” because “everything is amped up for gleeful maximum effect” by “Tommy’s energetic direction.”  Asserted the Post reviewer, “Subtle this is not, but Jacobs-Jenkins pushes all the buttons very efficiently” and Vincentelli concluded, “‘Appropriate’ proves that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel—you just have to make sure it turns smoothly.”

In contrast, the Daily News’s Joe Dziemianowicz opened his notice with: “There’s probably a worthwhile, if well-worn, story of unwanted and inescapable family legacies lurking in . . . ‘Appropriate.’  Too bad the virtues of this comedy-drama are hidden in director Liesl Tommy’s miscalibrated production.”  Dziemianowicz also wasn’t impressed with the performances, calling the acting “cartoonish, unconvincing and, finally, inappropriate.”  Ultimately, the Newsman concluded that “the play strives for a significance that remains elusive.”  The Times’s Brantley, however, called Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate “his very fine, subversively original new play . . . under the astute direction of Liesl Tommy.”  The play’s style, Brantley asserted, “is piercingly clear, with carefully drawn characters who speak in crisp and fluid dialogue” which has been “smoothly acted” by the ensemble. 

In “Goings On About Town,” the New Yorker called Appropriate “a sprawling, Shepardesque play . . . that slyly approaches its huge subject.”  Jacobs-Jenkins and “his expert cast take care with the many familial relationships,” said the New Yorker writer, “and the young playwright has found a way to teach without preaching, leaving the ending, true to life, wide open.”  In an astute comparison of three of STC’s current productions (Appropriate, David Henry Hwang’s Kung Fu, and Will Eno’s The Open House; see my ROT reports on the last two on 11 and 16 March) and an invocation of Leo Tolstoy’s admonition that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (it’s from Anna Karenina, 1873-1877), Jesse Green at New York magazine decided that the family members in Jacobs-Jenkins’s play “make the other clans look like Cleavers, and make you want to wield one.”  Green asked “Is Appropriate a comic tragedy?  A tragic comedy?  No, just a mess, undercooked and overexplained” and it’s “as overstuffed as the house.”  (Green added that “at least the house gets cleaned during the action.  The play just gets more cluttered.”)  The actors, said the man from New York, must “hack their way through the emotional underbrush” and the playwright never “finds ways to seduce us into accepting his creatures as real and even attractive.”  Green concluded by declaring, “Fortunately, people like that don’t live in real houses.  They live only in theaters, and you get to leave them there.”  In the Village Voice, Alexis Soloski described Jacobs-Jenkins’s writing style as “a fluid naturalism that seems to want to break into something grander,” but noted that in Appropriate “only the play's beginning and ending veer toward the symbolic.”  Soloski further noted that the playwright’s “characters speak vivid, self-aware dialogue,” though “the script wouldn't benefit from a more direct swing at its subjects.”  Tommy’s staging “too often trades messy horror for clean comedy” as the script “does call out for a more substantial kind of reckoning.” 

In the theater and entertainment press, Amy Stringer proclaimed in Show Business, “Everybody drop what you’re doing and go see this play immediately,” calling Appropriate an “enthralling play, expertly directed by Liesl Tommy.”  Stringer even warned theatergoers that the experience “will quite possibly leave you with your jaw on the floor, clutching the person sitting next to you.”  Of Jacobs-Jenkins’s dialogue, the Show Biz reviewer reported that “the thought behind each line is so well-articulated that almost nothing seems wasted or superfluous” and, aided by Tommy’s direction, the writing “takes the production to another level of realism.”  In her final analysis, Stringer insisted that “the way that every element of this play comes together . . . makes [Appropriate] a production that deserves to be seen.”  In Entertainment Weekly, Stephan Lee reported, “There's so much to look at on [the] Signature Theatre stage during Appropriate, yet so many of the play's major drivers remain totally unseen.”  The play, wrote the EW reviewer, “is . . . primarily a family drama rooted firmly in reality, but the ominous setting lends it the look of a horror show or ghost story—which, in some ways, it is.”  Lee felt that Jacobs-Jenkins’s “verbal artillery,” which “infuses the script with unforced, viperish humor,” is also “often jarring, but the show stops just short of over-indulgence.”  Describing it as “an uncommonly deft dramatic and technical achievement,” Lee reported that the play “speeds along” despite its length because of both Jacobs-Jenkins’s writing and Tommy’s “taut direction.”  Time Out New York‘s David Cote characterized Appriopriate as “a racialized, faintly mocking riff on the Dark Family Secrets genre so well defined by Albee, Shepard and, more recently, Tracy Letts.”  Finding the plot “a contrived exposé of attitudes” by “tedious and grating characters,” the man from TONY declared, “It’s potentially rich material, but the young Jacobs-Jenkins can’t write character or dialogue as well as the sources he’s synthesizing.”  Cote felt that “despite a talented cast and Liesl Tommy’s straight-faced direction,” the reviewer-writer kept “waiting for the narrative or aesthetic strategy to twist into something truly novel or perverse.  It never does.”  The TONY reviewer’s “bottom line”: “This family isn’t dysfunctional enough.”

In the on-line press, Elyse Sommer proclaimed on CurtainUp that the Lafayettes’ “problems and long festering resentments could keep several psychotherapists busy for years.”  Sommer characterized Appropriate, a “Southern Gothic serio-comedy,” as “both a comic variation [on] Tracy Letts's August: Osage County . . . and a subtly original and funny yet serious take on this dramatic genre” to which Jacobs-Jenkins “adds an ironic piquancy.”  The CurtainUp review-writer asserted that the playwright subverts “this essentially familiar setup” by the way he “builds the ever escalating conflicts . . . with humor and skillful character development,” creating “believable, nuanced” figures instead of “the caricatures they could easily be.”  Sommer concluded that the “disturbing yet entertaining play,” composed         “[w]ithout preaching” by Jacobs-Jenkins, “can still have the power to surprise and impress.”  In her New York Theatre Guide review, Tulis McCall, acknowledging that she “may be in the minority,” complained that the narrative is too diffuse because “Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t choose one character to pull the plot along.”  “No single person,” McCall explained, “has a goal around which the story is built.”  The cyber reviewer further asserted, “The writing in the second act borders on sophomoric,” and she lamented that despite Tommy’s “very fine direction,” Ramos’s “killer set,” and “excellent performances,” she was disappointed because “instead of being pulled into the Lafayette family basement, I was left out on the front lawn, asking the same question that Bo asked: Is there a point to all this?”  McCall nonetheless felt that Jacobs-Jenkins “is an adventuresome chronicler” and admitted that she “look[s] forward to more work from” the playwright. 

Talkin’ Broadway’s Matthew Murray reported that “Jacobs-Jenkins demonstrates a compelling storytelling skill” and “skirts the line between the necessary and the uncomfortable, raising questions most of us would prefer were not asked in real life.”  Still, Murray felt, the playwright “plots a bit broadly, leaving certain elements and events looser than is absolutely ideal,” namely, “too many of the characters are saddled with too many crippling problems . . . and a number of events in the second act . . . do not ring true.”  The TB reviewer found, “Ultimately, alas, neither does the production, as Jacobs-Jenkins’s intense and surprising writing is never matched by what we see onstage,” for which Murray blamed Tommy, who brings “an acrid stuffiness about the proceedings that slows down the action and keeps much of it from being either tense or convincing.”  He summed up that “everything plays just a little too fake,” including, the review-writer added, the actors.  Murray’s final judgment, however, is quite positive, finding that Appropriate is “a vivid vivisection of white guilt given physical form, and a fascinating investigation from an African-American playwright who’s once again unleashing his distinctive voice and outlook.”  On TheaterMania, David Gordon called Appropriate “[a] great concept gone wrong” because Jacobs-Jenkins’s “idea is just so good that the decision to mash up hoary old theatrical tropes to tell his story is massively disappointing.”  Gordon lamented, “The performers try valiantly to find the heart within each role,” all of whom, the reviewer asserted, were “a group of archetypes.”  He further averred that Tommy's direction is “[m]ore detrimental” because it’s “tonally confusing and infuses a play that doesn't seem like a dark comedy with grimly comedic elements.”  The production, however, “is stunning to look at” with Ramos’s costumes and his “set eye-popping in its scope and messiness,” as well as Chu’s lighting and the sound design of Broken Chord.  “Ultimately,” concluded Gordon, “Jacobs-Jenkins’ message is obscured by his insistence on sticking to something so conventional.  What could have made a significant impression on the American dramatic canon lands with a mere ho-hum.” 


1 comment:

  1. In the "Arts, Briefly" column of the New York Times of 20 May 2014, Patrick Healy reported:

    "The critically acclaimed Off Broadway plays 'Appropriate' and 'An Octoroon' dominated the 59th annual Obie Awards on Monday night, with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins winning the best new American play award for writing both dramas. In addition, Johanna Day, star of 'Appropriate,' and Chris Myers, star of 'An Octoroon,' received Obie performance awards, and Liesl Tommy won a directing Obie for 'Appropriate.'"

    Healy also reported: "A playwriting Obie went to Will Eno for 'The Open House,' and Oliver Butler won a directing Obie for the show." I blogged about this production on ROT on 16 March.

    The Obie Awards, originated by the Village Voice, honor work in Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway theater. The 2014 awards were presented at Webster Hall in the East Village.