Thursday, 20 March 2014

APPROPRIATE by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins at the Signature Theatre

     In an interview in the SIGNATURE STORIES magazine, playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins says that APPROPRIATE is his response to the American tradition of domestic drama, that he took the ingredients of a number of classic plays and recombined them to create his work. One can certainly see the influences from Sam Shepard (the father in Will Eno's THE OPEN HOUSE, also at the Signature, seems to come right out of Shepard's BURIED CHILD), Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman and more. We have the battle over the legacy and memory of a dead patriarch and vicious sibling rivalry. We also have a rotting Southern mansion that contains memories of its dark past. Jacobs-Jenkins has managed to combine these elements into an entertaining drama. There's no doubt that Jacobs-Jenkins is a skilled playwright with a mastery of vibrant theatrical language. APPROPRIATE doesn't have the oddball poetry of Sam Shepard's BURIED CHILD, though it begins with a visual reminder of that play, nor does it have the haunting sense of spiritual emptiness that underlies Edward Albee's plays. What it does have that is original is a sense of the past, even the recent past, as less definite than we like to believe.
       There's no love felt by the Lafayette siblings. Toni, the eldest, played brilliantly by Johanna Day, spreads bitterness and recrimination indiscriminately. She knows she has become a monster, but can't help herself. Her husband has divorced her and her teenage son Rhys (Mike Faist) can't wait to get away from her. Toni has planned a family weekend to organize her father's belongings for auction so they can pay back the half-million dollars owed to the bank--the family went into debt to pay the father's medical bills during his long illness. Her affluent younger brother Ainsley (Alex Dreier) has arrived with his Jewish wife (Maddie Corman), and their two children. Also on the scene is the youngest brother Frank, now Franz, who hasn't been heard from for ten years. Franz has been trying to rebuild his life in Portland after having gotten into a lot of trouble, including impregnating a thirteen-year-old girl. To his siblings, he is "the pervert." He has arrived with his fiancee, a new agey woman who calls herself River. Toni wanted everyone to share rosy memories of their father, but she seems to be the only person who holds such memories. Franz wants his family to forgive him and welcome him back into the fold, but Toni isn't the forgiving type. She makes Martha in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF seem like sweetness itself. The younger generation seem upset and baffled by the feuds that eventually erupt into a full scale brawl.
     Among the piles of stuff in this old house--the father was a hoarder-- are artifacts of the darker racial history of our country including an album of photos of lynching. This, too, becomes a bone of contention. Ainsley and Toni want to put it on the market--it's worth hundred of thousands of dollars. Franz wants to cleanse the family of its past. Rachel wants it to be used to teach racial sensitivity. River feels the ghostly hand of the past when she looks through it. Thirteen-year-old Cassidy takes pictures of it and sends them to her friends.
     Nothing is resolved in APPROPRIATE. Jacobs-Jenkins wisely does not give his audience a pat ending. The family does not unite in a group hug. In fact, Toni tells her brothers to pretend she's dead so that they can fabricate good memories of her. She will do the same for them. We never solve the mystery of the origin of the lynching photos or the Ku Klux Klan hood that briefly appears. What he does give us is a hugely entertaining play. Yes, it is, as he claims, an homage to American domestic drama, but it never seems like an overstuffed bag of cliches as AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY does. IT always seems freshly minted. There are also moments that are hilariously funny.
     Highest praise is due to Liesl Tommy's direction and the superb ensemble, particularly Johanna Day who allows us to see Toni's monstrousness, but maintain sympathy for her. It would be easy to make Toni unbearable--she is, after all--but Day allows us to see the pain under the cruelty. She has lost everything--husband, son and rosy memories of her father. Everyone else manages to make their characters more than stereotypes. Kudos, too to Clint Ramos's beautiful set that eventually takes on a life of its own, and the soundscape created by Broken Chord. The ever-present sound of cicadas, a mating sound that is also a death knell, sets an eery mood.
     Highly recommended.
APPROPRIATE by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins. Pershing Square Signature Center. March 19, 2014.

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