The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Extended through April 13, $75
In working on Appropriate, his first production as part of the Signature Theatre Residency Five program, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins was inspired by specific family dramas by such previous Signature residency playwrights as Sam Shepard, Arthur Miller, and Horton Foote in addition to Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, and Anton Chekhov. He was also influenced by Hilton Als’s “GWTW” essay for the 2000 New-York Historical Society exhibition “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America,” in which the art critic wrote about being asked to contribute to the catalog, surmising that it was primarily because he was black. “A black writer,” Als wrote, “is someone who can simplify what is endemic to him or her as a human being — race — and blow it up, to cartoon proportions, hereby making the coon situation ‘clear’ to a white audience.” That is precisely what Jacobs-Jenkins has done with Appropriate, the story of three white siblings who have returned to the family’s dilapidated southern plantation to sell it to pay off debts. Franz (Patch Darragh), the black sheep who disappeared shortly after a serious indiscretion with a minor, arrives with his easygoing, crunchy, and much younger girlfriend, River (Sonya Harum). Bo (Michael Laurence) shows up with his Jewish wife, Rachael (Maddie Corman), and their two kids, Ainsley (Alex Dreier) and Cassidy (Izzy Hanson-Johnston). And the divorced Toni (Johanna Day) brings her troubled teenager, Rhys (Mike Faist). As they brutally argue over money, the past, responsibility, and the Lafayette family legacy, they find a home-made book of photographs of lynched black men, forcing them to take a closer, far more painful look at who their father might have been as well as at themselves.
Although it’s very much about the African American experience, there are no living black characters in Appropriate, a title that refers to both pronunciations and meanings of the word: “to take or make use of without authority or right” and “especially suitable or compatible.” In the Lafayette clan’s world, blacks exist only in the nearby slave cemetery and in the lynching photographs. They refuse to acknowledge that their father could have been a racist bigot (or worse), even as evidence keeps piling up. Meanwhile, they try to protect the younger generation from seeing the pictures, as if the past can just be buried, but, of course, it’s not that easy. Directed by Liesl Tommy (The Good Negro, A Stone’s Throw), Appropriate begins with solid character development while raising intriguing social and moral issues without getting didactic. But the story goes off the rails in the second act as various secrets emerge and the vitriol reaches even higher levels. Perhaps most unfortunate, there’s a moment that seems like the perfect ending; the lights go out, and just as the audience is ready to applaud, the play continues through a disappointing, unnecessary coda. In Appropriate, Jacobs-Jenkins (Neighbors, An Octoroon) clutters what is a fascinating premise with too many disparate elements. In an interview in Signature Stories, the theater’s free magazine, Jacobs-Jenkins says, “I ended up deciding I would steal something from every play that I liked, and put those things in a play and cook the pot to see what happens.” Although made up of some very fine ingredients, Appropriate is overstuffed, its subtle complexities gone well past the boiling point.