Review: APPROPRIATE Stuns at Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.

A haunted house of a play that mines Southern gothic and family dysfunction.

By: May. 25, 2024
Review: APPROPRIATE Stuns at Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.
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I recently had to travel to Memphis and clean out my aunt’s estate, which consisted of a hoarder’s house with much family history hidden in it. So imagine my surprise when I realized the recent DIRT DOGS THEATRE COMPANY’s production of APPROPRIATE addressed and dramatized exactly this scenario. Branden Jacobs Jenkins’ 2013 play has been reworked and is currently playing on Broadway with Sarah Paulson and simultaneously in Houston at the MATCH with some of Houston’s best actors, designers, and director. 

It feels like a spiritual sequel to the DIRT DOGS company's production of AUGUST OSAGE COUNTY a year ago and features many of the same participants. And like the formerly mentioned play, it is a tense Southern psychodrama about family and the results of abuse on members of it. Cicadas, verbal sparring, racism, and outright brawls all make appearances as one would expect. Yet the show is still surprising in many turns and should have audiences laughing and gasping often simultaneously. The darkest of humor surfaces out of tragedy. But also much like AUGUST OSAGE COUNTY, APPROPRIATE is three acts long and drawn out, with monologues and endings that seem to run on and on. It does have a lot to say, but audiences will need patience to explore all of it. Like the house, there is too much to unpack, and it is hard not to feel overwhelmed and disconnected. Still, APPROPRIATE is an embarrassment of riches when you look at acting and theatre craft, and it should be celebrated and not missed. It is as intriguing as its title, which could be read in two distinct ways: either as suitable to be seen or property taken by someone. It has a dual nature that it never apologizes for, a play that is never clear whether it is a tragic comedy or comedic tragedy. 

At the center of everything are the remains of a Southern plantation in Arkansas that three siblings assemble to go through months after their father’s passing. The Lafayettes are not only dysfunctional, but they seem to be infected by every family ill you could imagine. Inadvertently, the play makes the most of their casual racism and then explores the physical manifestation of the outright brutality of their ancestors. Antoinette “Toni,” Bo, and Frank Lafayette have to deal with a legacy their father left them and figure out if they should be horrified or mine it for profit. And yet, as APPROPRIATE unfolds, we find out each character is hiding a multitude of sins and regret that only death mixed with inheritance can spark the fires of grief and rage with your siblings. The cast of daredevils is tasked with playing monsters of people for three hours straight without flinching. They are the sum of each character’s demons rather than any virtue, walking wounded and lashing out at one another. Toni is only after emotional revenge after being abandoned, Bo is only looking for money and profit, and Frank seeks only selfish forgiveness for acts he should take more accountability for than he does. Along for this wild ride are spouses, girlfriends, and children, none of whom escape the wrath of wraiths who haunt the Lafayettes.  

Toni is the fulcrum of the dramatic arc, and Malinda L. Beckham makes distinct choices in how to play this hollowed-out monstrosity of a woman. She’s the eldest sister and the executor of her father’s estate. Much like the actress did in MISERY earlier this year, she brings the seething inside herself, only letting it bubble out in key moments. Lines most actresses would scream, she almost whispers. She bottles, bottles, bottles, and then explodes. It is one of the most interesting performances I have seen all year, perhaps only rivaled by her own in prior productions. Brock Huerter portrays Rhys, her son, who is simultaneously troubled and charming. The actor does remarkable physical work to reveal the torment inside. Bo, the money-hungry middle brother, is taken on by Jeff Featherston. He effectively portrays shallow, a man who will not accept blame or lay it in any form. Elizabeth Marshall Black is his wife who blames without pause, and the actress is an effective sparring partner with the Lafayettes. Black’s innate sense of blending comedy and tragedy together is masterful. She’s a force of nature but, at the same time, far too familiar. Carolyn Richards is their thirteen-year-old daughter, Cassidy, and she uses her physicality to inform us of the struggle of a soul, not a child nor an adult yet. It’s an arresting mix of naive and street smarts. Michael Helman inhabits their young, hyperactive, and inquisitive son ably. Christian Tannous acts as the youngest sibling, Frank, a ball of regret and haunted by his past as much as his family’s. Tannous is so wonderful at telegraphing everything going on inside him that he hardly has to speak. He acts on every level you can imagine all at once. Skyler Sinclair gives a shockingly truthful and empathetic portrayal of Frank’s younger hippie girlfriend into healing and feeling. A part that could easily be comedic is wrenchingly real in her hands. 

To say that the design is just as effective as the acting is a severe understatement. The sound effects, lighting, and set work as hard as any of the actors and, in many ways, eclipse them at certain moments. I knew immediately we were in for high gothic Southern drama the second I stepped into the theater space and heard the screaming cicadas sound man Michael Mullins had created. He punctuates each moment of revelation in the show with stunning scoring moments that are usually only observed in a film. Mark Lewis creates the sprawling multi-story set representing a handsome plantation gone to hell. His work is wildly effective. It creaks and groans under the actors just as the real deal would, and in the finale, the set puts a period on everything that is as stunning as any monologue by our thespians. The portrait of the father haunts and informs every second onstage. I wondered if I could nominate this structure for best actor at the end of the year. Lighting from Jim Elliott is on par with the sound and set, and he shifts moods and punctuates each act with flair. DIRT DOGS technically could take on the largest houses in Houston for their technical prowess, and it is some of the best I have ever seen. My only gripe is the Act One initial dressing is a little too nice from having witnessed a true house of a hoarder recently. But then, the logistics of being onstage have to be considered. Otherwise, I was floored. 

Director Ron Jones does what he executes well: keeping the pace up despite the play’s arduous length. He knows how to get actors to establish a rhythm that immerses us. We are sucked into the Lafayettes, and their melodramatic world feels grounded. The only bumps along the way are that the script by Branden Jacobs Jenkins contains enough emotional complications to fill up a season of plays. It’s all written well, but there is simply too much here. It is a credit to the director and the cast that they are up to the impossible tasks the author sets for them, but we long for more brevity and clarity. This is far from a pitch-perfect production. A few moments feel too restrained; in contrast, others border on being completely out of control. Climactic character breakdowns feel either hyperbolically forced or underwhelming. We realize this is just theater and can see the actors' wheels spinning. It sprawls out before us and feels like too much is being dealt with in one night. Some of the shocks register as shrugs because there are so damn many of them. You want to scream at the stage, “Haven’t I had enough?” 

But then again, APPROPRIATE is about a monumental mess we have made over our entire cultural history, so perhaps this reaction is carefully orchestrated and even curated. This family, as crazy and dysfunctional as it is, reminds us that the monsters out there are sometimes us. Racism and greed. We inherited them; we continue them and hardly realize their effect on our children. That is the brilliance of this work and why this play and this author are so important. It surfaced in 2013 and is as revelatory as it is now. It basically tells us we all have a part in this, no matter how we remember or see it. Unfortunately, those needing the message the most will be blind to it and simply see it as too much of a mess to deal with. And I find that wholly inappropriate. At the end of the day, this is a well-acted, beautifully designed, overstuffed, emotional wallop of a piece. It is not to be missed if you love a challenge. It is a messy masterwork, even if it hitches now and then. I don’t know what’s scarier, the ghosts of the Lafayettes or the ghosts they have become. 

APPROPRIATE runs at the MATCH through June 8th. The performance is two hours and forty-five minutes long and has two ten-minute intermissions. All evening performances begin at 7:30 pm, so patrons can expect to be out by a little after ten. Restaurants and bars are within walking distance, and street and garage parking are available (most have a fee). Concessions are available at the complex, and drinks are allowed in the space. 

Photo provided by Gary Griffin.

Review: APPROPRIATE Stuns at Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.


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