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Paulanne Simmons

Racism Meets Family Dysfunction in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ "Appropriate"

Directed by Lila Neugebauer
The Hayes Theater
240 West 44 Street
Opened Dec 18, 2023
Tickets: https://www.broadway.com/shows/appropriate-broadway/
Closes Mar 3, 2024
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Jan. 3, 2024

Alyssa Emily Marvin and Elle Fanning. Photo by Joan Marcus

The most interesting character in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ "Appropriate," now making its Broadway debut, never appears onstage. He is the pater familias of the Lafayettes, whose death has brought his children together at the family estate, an Arkansas plantation that could have come out of a Tennessee Williams play.

Mr. Lafayette, once considered for the Supreme Court, was, somehow unbeknownst to his family, a racist and sadist who took and saved pictures of lynched Black people and was apparently a member of the Klan. How did he hide this? How did he rise so far in Washington? Why did he keep such damning mementoes? We never find out.

But from the moment his son, Frank and his son’s girlfriend enter his dilapidated mansion through a malfunctioning window, we know this is indeed a family from hell. Many in the family have not seen each other for years. And we soon learn they’ve kept away from each other for good reason.

Frank (Michael Esper), now calling himself Franz, is a recovering substance abuser and sex offender. His girlfriend, who goes by the name River (Elle Fanning), vacillates between fecklessness hippie spiritualism and very practical maneuvering.

The eldest and only daughter, Toni (the extraordinary Sarah Paulson), having taken care of her father in his last days and her troubled drug-dealing son, Rhys (Graham Campbell), all his life, believes she is owed respect and sympathy. But she is not willing to extend any sympathy to Franz, who has exhausted all her compassion over the years.

The other son, Bo (Corey Stoll), who moved north to escape his family, has not been able to escape the lure of money, and has returned with his wife, Rachael (Natalie Gold), and their children, 13-year-old Cassidy (Alyssa Emily Marvin) and 8-year-old Ainsley (Lincoln Cohen/ Everett Sobers), ostensibly to show his children their southern roots, but really  to protect his interests. When his sister makes decisions he believes are foolish, his animosity knows no bounds.

If the family doesn’t have enough to deal with, the offensive photos are soon discovered. Toni thinks they shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Their father may have occasionally used unseemly language, but he was no racist. Rachael disagrees. She claims their father never liked her because of her Jewish heritage. He once referred to her as Bo’s Jew wife.

The only people who seem to get along are Rhys and Cassidy whose crush on her first cousin doesn’t seem troubling, considering the age difference. But with this family, who knows?

Although it may seem there are two distinct themes here, personal behavior and historic racism, it eventually becomes apparent the two are indeed related. For it must be the rot of their history that has caused this family’s misery. As the Bible says… the sins of the father… you know the rest.

The political and social message in this drama may elicit great admiration. But there is nothing terribly original here. There is nothing particularly unique about their troubles. The dialogue could easily be transferred to any number of plays.

"Appropriate" runs two hours, forty-five minutes, with one intermission. It is brilliantly directed by Lila Neugebauer, who has at her disposal of a top-notch cast. Their combined efforts produce many wonderful moments. But even the best acting and direction cannot stop the coughs and shifting in seats as the play goes on and on like a hammer bludgeoning a dying animal only waiting to be put out of its misery.

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