Imagine a house party or even a business meeting where the five participants shout at each other non-stop for an hour. If you are like me, you’d just want to leave, and I nearly did. And several people in the lobby I talked to agreed with me.
That is the first act of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play Appropriate, that opened Saturday night at the Westport Country Playhouse, directed by Associate Artistic Director David Kennedy. In MacArthur award winning Jacobs-Jenkins play, three siblings, 2 of their spouses and three children return to their late father’s home in rural Alabama, to clean out the house and arrange for an estate sale of the contents and the sale of the decaying house.
Toni (Betsy Aidem) is the eldest sibling, in her later 40s or early 50s and is consistently abrasive and angry to everyone: it is very difficult to identify with her. She is also the estate’s executor. Bo, (Beauregard) the middle sibling (David Aaron Baker, above and left) is just slightly younger than Toni, and is arrogant, angry and hopeful that the sale of the estate will produce some income for him, as he has spent a lot on his father in recent years, and, we learn is likely to be losing his job. His wife, Rachael (Diane Davis, above) is only slightly more pleasant and quite sure her late father-in-law was anti-Semitic as he was overheard calling her Bo’s “Jew-wife.” It doesn’t take long before Toni and Rachael are at it hammer and tongs.
Franz (formerly named Frank) is the youngest sibling (Shawn Fagan) and the black sheep of the family, having struggled with drug and alcohol addiction as well as what we learn was probably pedophilia.
He seems more reasonable than his older siblings but is not easy to like. His girlfriend River (Anna Crivelli) is a clichéd young (about 23) Portland hippie who works as a vegan chef, and while she is considerably less visible, her calm, likeable hippie style is a marked contrast to the rest of the battling clan. Incidentally, she was also the fight director. And oh, yes, there is a fight.
We are told that this is a play about family secrets that gradually reveal themselves, and once you learn that the deceased father was once a powerful lawyer before he settled into rural Arkansas, the “surprise” about his racist past is quite predictable. His character is quite thinly drawn, we only learn a few dribbled out facts about him as the play proceeds, but we see where this is going. To a large degree, they are all present hoping to get some money out of the estate.
Three young actors are utterly charming in their smaller roles: Rhys (Nick Selting) as an older teenager, and Cassidy (Allison Winn) as a younger teenager. Oddly, even though the script always refers to her as “Cassidy,” the program lists her as “Cassie.” Finally, Ainsley (Christian Michael Camporin) zooms around as a hyper maybe 8-year old, in Act I and in Act III is part of the Big Reveal.
The set, by Andrew Boyce, has been lovingly executed by the skilled Westport Playhouse staff, led by David Dreyfoos, and represents the shabby living room, windows, semi-spiral stairs and parts of two other rooms in exceptional detail. One thing you can almost always count on is the fact that there will be some sort of inlaid flooring on the stage that is appropriate for the décor. The lighting by Matthew Richards is important, as there are night scenes without lights as well as lightning and outdoor glow coming through the windows. And the sound cues of cicadas chirping between scenes are excellent.
Playwright Jacobs-Jenkins has said that he wanted to create a southern family drama in the tradition of Streetcar Named Desire and August, Osage County, but while his characters are annoyingly well-drawn, the writing lacks the lyricism of Tennessee Williams or Tracy Letts. Jacobs-Jenkins, who is African American, noted that most of these great family dramas do not include any people of color, and that was a driving factor in his creating this play. However, the entire cast is white, although reference is made to the slave graveyard on the estate, and to past lynchings.
But having praised all these capable players, the result is 2 hours of people screaming at each other almost non-stop. This, we must assume, is the choice of director David Kennedy, and this makes for a really uncomfortable evening. While the publicity suggests that this is a comedy: it really is not. I counted just four laughs in the entire one hour first act, and only a few more in the other two.
The acts are pretentiously named “The Book of Revelations,” “Walpurgisnacht,” and “The Book of Genesis,” but the reasons for these names are not all that apparent. The first act runs about an hour, and after a 15-minute intermission, the second two acts are played without pause, ending about 10:40. The playwright suggests that the mysterious title might be read as the verb “appropriATE,” rather than the adjective “apPROpriate.” I still don’t get it. The script lists 6 dictionary definitions of the word, and the playwright suggests that he has incorporated all of them.
“Appropriate” runs through September 2. Performances are Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays at 2 and 8pm, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are available at the theater’s website: westportplayhouse.org.