Theatre Review: ‘Appropriate’ at the Humana Festival

Larry Bull as Bo, Amy Lynn Stewart as Rachael, Reese Madigan as Franz and Jordan Baker as Toni. Photo by Alan Simons

[The 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays runs through April 7 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.]

“Appropriate” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Gary Griffin
The Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville
Through April 7, 2012

View Chuck’s video blog review

Synopsis: “The family that stresses together represses together. When the Lafayettes descend upon a crumbling Arkansan plantation to liquidate their dead patriarch’s estate, his three adult children collide over clutter, debt, and a contentious family history. But after a disturbing discovery surfaces among their father’s possessions, the reunion takes a turn for the explosive, unleashing a series of crackling surprises and confrontations. A play about the trouble with inheritance, memory loss, and the art of repression.”

The title of Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’s play is nothing if not ironic.  At one point or another nearly every member of the Lafayette family acts in ways that are not appropriate (the word we now use in place of “bad” or “wrong”).  Resentful that she was left to deal with the family’s increasingly disturbed father and crumbling finances, sister Toni is hostile and judgmental towards nearly everyone—and possibly in denial about dad’s real nature.  Frank (now calling himself Franz as part of his attempt to escape his past) has apparently still not gotten over the unhealthy interest in underage women that made that escape necessary.  And Bo, while apparently the most rational of the bunch, is still willing to make a fast buck from a shameful family secret.

Dysfunctional family dramas can be deadly in my experience, but Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins avoids the pitfalls of the genre, at least in the first act.  Exposition is neatly and economically delivered, the characters are all credible and quickly established, and the dramatic tension builds plausibly from the semi-comic opening scenes to the dramatic explosion that results from the revelation that the clan’s father might have been something much worse than just emotionally disturbed.  The first act of “Appropriate” is, in fact, one of the best I’ve seen in many years.

The second act is not quite as strong, partly because it never satisfactorily resolves some of the tensions in the first and partly because it strikes some false character notes, especially in the arguments over how to capitalize on an ugly artifact found in the attic (yes, I’m being vague in an effort to avoid spoilers).  The final moments depicting the eventual fate of the house also struck me as a bit anticlimactic and tacked on.  Still, the script as a whole is very compelling; it needs only a little tweaking, in my view, to make it the Lexus of dysfunctional family plays.

The cast is uniformly wonderful.  Reese Madigan, Jordan Baker, and Larry Bull all shine as the siblings Frank/Franz, Toni, and Bo.  Amy Lynn Stewart is very strong as Bo’s wife Rachel, especially in the final moments when Bo’s façade of reserve collapses.  Natalie Kuhn is archly New Age as Frank’s very young fiancée Trisha.

There’s fine work as well from David Rosenblatt as Toni’s son Rhys (who has some ugly inappropriate behavior in his own past) and young Gabe Weible as Bo’s over-energized son Ainsley.  Lilli Stein is remarkably credible as Bo’s prepubescent daughter Cassidy.  Although Ms. Stein is a college graduate, she completely convinced me she was (at least) a good ten years younger.

Director Gary Griffin has nicely shaped the scenes, blocked it all intelligently, and served the script very well.  He and stage manager Michael D. Domue also designed a redressing of Antje Ellermann’s amazingly detailed set in the second act that was executed so swiftly and artfully that it actually got applause.

That set, it should be noted, is quite a marvel, especially when you consider that it has to be struck and rebuilt repeatedly because it shares the Pamela Brown auditorium with “Gnit”.  With the addition of Matt Frey’s lights and Bray Poor’s sound, the illusion of a decaying Southern mansion was perfect.

Taken as a whole, “Appropriate” was one of the best things I saw at Humana this year—right up there with “Cry Old Kingdom”.  And that’s high praise indeed.