No resentments run deeper than the ones between siblings. There’s just no getting away from the shared history with your brother or sister, and it’s never the same experience or memory that flares up feelings of anger. I know I’ve been in arguments with my little brother where he felt slighted by something I barely remember, and vice versa. Those resentments are at the core of Appropriate, the dark new drama from playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. With bluntly effective dialogue, he complicates a fractured family history with queasy feelings about history and racism. While it ends on an allegorical note, the strong characters sit comfortably along Jacobs-Jenkins’ loftier ideas.
Two brothers and a sister gather at an old house in Arkansas because their father just died. His place is a mess – set designer Clint Ramos juxtaposes a southern gothic look with a hoarder’s sense of claustrophobia – and they need to clean it up before an upcoming auction. Toni (Deborah Hazlett) is the oldest and her connection with her father runs deep: she’s quick to defend him when her brothers Bo (David Bashins) and Franz (Tim Getman) remember his casual racism. But Toni’s relationship with her sister sister-in-law Rachael (Beth Hylton) is the most frayed. Rachael believes her father-in-law hated her because she’s Jewish, so Toni ironically provokes her with anti-Semitic epithets. No one is happy, and sniping at each other is their only consolation (at least they’re funny about it).
Amidst all this tension is the discovery of an old photo album. To everyone’s shock, it’s a snuff photo album and all the victims are black. The siblings are not quite sure what to do with it, while Bo’s daughter Cassie (Maya Brettell) shares a curiosity with her cousin Rhys (Josh Adams). Jacobs-Jenkins’ is sneaky about how the album forces a generational divide: Cassie and Rhys are distant enough from their grandfather so they’re fascinated, while Toni and her brothers internalize how the album is a vestige from their old man (who they all hate in a unique way). This family is not our family, but their disagreements are universal and uncomfortable in equal measure.
The push/pull between the family’s time together and what makes them different is well-honed territory, but the dialogue keeps the cues subtle. Bo and Rachel are city slickers – a throwaway line notes how they live in New York – which sets up a payoff for the inevitable Big Fight. But the biggest surprise is Franz and his young girlfriend River (Caitlin McColl). They’re free spirits in comparison to everyone else, and while it’s easy to dismiss River’s new age pretense, she’s thoughtful in a disarming way.
River, Franz, and the photo album are at the center of the Big Fight, of course, and Jacobs-Jenkins weaves complex ideas like privilege and white guilt into a practical conversation defined by its ugliness. The dialogue gets so ugly it’s almost funny, and the scene culminates with a perfectly timed, pitch-black visual gag. The only problem is the fight choreography leading up to the gag; clunky and imperfect, it betrays the thoughtfulness of the performances and Jacob-Jenkins’ dialogue.
Unlike many other family dramas, where the most strident voice is given to the most accomplished actor, Appropriate is an ensemble defined by equality. With the exception of Eli Schluman, who plays Bo and Rachel’s youngest, all the actors are given moments where their characters grow. As Cassie and Rachel, Brettell and McColl have a terrific scene where they realize they have more in common with anyone else at the house, and director Lisel Tommy has the patience to let their moment breathe (the scene also introduces a minor incest sub-plot, which Jacob-Jenkins never explores with much depth). As the youngest, Franz is the baby/goof of the family, and Getman deepens the archetype with the help of a grim back-story that highlights how the path toward redemption is not possible without a little denial or cognitive dissonance.
But for all the frayed relationships that define Approriate, the most important is the one between Toni and Bo. Both characters are smart and carefully guard their weaknesses, yet what’s more important is how Jacobs-Jenkins finds a satisfying resolution for how they perceive their family. The play ends with two big scenes from Hazlett and Bishins, respectively, and it’s haunting how shared resentments can lead to such disparate consequences. Appropriate is critical of these flawed, human characters, yet deeply understands why they do what they do, or why the lack of answers leaves them shaken. This is a disturbing drama without the restorative coda, so the only consolation is that, yes, the play understands why we don’t call home as much as we should.
Appropriate is at the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company until December 1st. Buy tickets here!