Familiarity, it has been noted, breeds contempt. But it’s an essential ingredient in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play Appropriate. With more than a nod in the direction of Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Horton Foote, Edward Albee and most recently (and specifically) Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County, Jacobs-Jenkins refreshingly excavates an ongoing staple of American drama – the dysfunctional family.
He said his intention was to steal something from every play he liked, to put those things into a play of his own “and to see what happens.” What happens is that the maladjusted Lafayette siblings, whose father recently passed, descend with their respective spouses and offspring onto their once imposing family mansion and former plantation in Arkansas to claim their inheritance the day before the pile – now derelict and filled with so much clutter and bric-a-brac that it resembles a junkyard – is sold.
The most dominating of the clan is the bile-drenched Toni (Monica Dolan). The eldest of the Lafayettes, she’s divorced, has a teenage son Rhys (Charles Furness), is chronically shy on civility and has a mouth so poisonous it needs disinfecting. The rivalry between her and her financially strapped middle brother Bo (Steven Mackintosh), over who cared for their late father more, is positively toxic, as is her relationship with Bo’s Jewish wife Rachel (Jaimi Barbakoff), whom she labels a “kike.” Her youngest brother Frank (Edward Hogg), now calling himself Franz, is a loser who turns everything he touches into ash, and who, after disappearing for about ten years, has fetched up at the mansion with his much younger and mystical new-age girlfriend River (Tafline Steen). He claims that the purpose of his sudden appearance has less to do with his inheritance than to deliver a written apology for his tardiness, which he insists on reading to his sceptical family.
Just as Edward Albee’s George and Martha indulged in vicious games with themselves and their guests in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (both plays, not so incidentally, have a second act called Walpurgisnacht), so the Lafayettes embark on in their own particular game of abrasive brinkmanship. It’s not an edifying sight, and under Ola Ince’s razor-edged direction it creates a tension that positively crackles.
To use Alfred Hitchcock’s term, the McGuffin on which the play pivots is an old photograph album showing gruesome and disturbing pictures of African American lynchings, which the siblings discover among their dead father’s possessions. Toni rejects any suggestion that the album is proof of their father’s innate racism, but a story Bo relates about his father’s refusal to acknowledge a black roommate his freshman year at college, as well as the discovery of a Ku Klux Klan hood at the mansion, clearly throws doubt on old man Lafayette’s prejudices. The family refuses to reconcile these discoveries, which remain an unsettling mystery. The effect these images have on various members of the family soon becomes an essential part of the narrative.
Though Jacobs-Jenkins is a black playwright with an impressive body of black-themed plays to his name, Appropriate has an all-white cast. True, these protagonists are no advertisement for white superiority and a more unlovable set of people would be hard to imagine. And although the playwright leaves the vexed question of Lafayette’s racism unresolved and refuses to explain the album’s origins or how old Lafayette required it, the subject of racism is always prevalent. We’re even told that the property was once a cemetery for slaves.
Though there are eight members of the cast, including Bo’s and Rachel’s two kids, a ninth appears in the shape of Fly Davis’ brilliant set, which dominates the evening. Just as the Lafayette siblings are haunted by various aspects of their past, the set itself would appear to be haunted the way Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit was towards the end of the play. Appropriate’s opening, for example, which takes place in darkness against an eerie soundtrack of trilling cicadas, creates a spooky, unsettling mood that persists throughout the evening, climaxing in the building’s disintegration.
The blackness is interrupted by two ghost-like characters who tentatively enter the mansion via the window, with only a couple of torches to light their way. Who are they and what do they want?
Though the play soon settles into a realistic and familiar drama of family dysfunction, Ince’s direction never relaxes its tautness or its power to shock and surprise. The play’s ghost-like qualities are further enhanced by Anna Watson’s crepuscular lighting (especially in the play’s first half) and by Donato Wharton’s atmospheric sound design.
When I first saw this play in New York at the Pershing Square Signature Center in 2014, I have to admit it had practically no impact on me whatsoever. The Donmar production, however, is a revelation, and so are the performances – especially Dolan’s as Toni, a woman whose own personal demons have haunted and misshaped her life. Mackintosh as the opportunistic Bo, the only sibling who hopes to make a fortune selling the contentious photo album when he learns of its financial value, and Hogg as Franz, whose personal history reveals him to be an alcoholic, a drug abuser and a paedophile, put flesh and blood on characters who could so easily have been stereotypes.
This is a powerful, challenging play, which turns imitation into an impressively original achievement.