BWW Review: APPROPRIATE Tears Into Mark Taper Forum
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is a young, upcoming playwright whose Neighbors back in 2010 was an alluring eye-opener about racism and the human condition. It declared that race is just an illusion, so the outrageous display of some black characters wearing black face and other blacks sublimating their heritage as white wannabes was in the end a painful reminder that a black man is still a black man; he is first and foremost a man who will help to shape a shared human experience.
What does any of this have to do with his new play Appropriate in its West Coast premiere at the MarkTaper Forum? Well...racism rears its ugly head again, or maybe it is still an illusion. Even though the characters here are all white, they uncover secrets about a just deceased patriarch of a decaying Arkansas plantation, who may have kept his hatred of blacks, totally under wraps. Was he a Ku Klux Klanner? A hood is found among his possessions, as well as a photo album of gross, disgusting photographs of blacks being lynched and tortured. Certainly not appropriate memorabilia for the children to get their hands on. Did these photos actually belong to the father or did he find them on the property when he took possession of it to build a bed and breakfast, which, by the way, never saw the light of day? There is also a cemetery on the property and further down the hill another cemetery surrounded by trees that marks the resting place of plantation slaves.
Siblings Toni (Melora Hardin), Beau (David Bishins) and younger brother Frank (Robert Beitzel) congregate six months after the funeral of their father to set up personal property for an auction, the proceeds of which will hopefully pay off some of the huge debts. Toni is a single mother with a teenage son Rhys (Will Tranfo), who is about to leave her to live with his father; Toni is uptight, feeling neglected and victimized, a martyr who treats everyone around her as inferior. Beau, the older brother, is married to Rachael (Missy Yager), a New York Jewess, whom Toni looks down on. Also with Beau and Rachael is their young daughter Cassidy (Grace Kaufman), who has a deep crush on her cousin Rhys. Frank, or Franz as he now prefers to be called (Robert Beitzel) is the black sheep. Accused of being a pedofile 10 years earlier, he had literally disappeared and has returned to ask forgiveness from his siblings. In tow is his grilfriend River (Zarah Mahler), a vegan and free-thinking, new millenium hippie type who takes a positive, healing attitude toward life. The cemetery may frighten her, but she does prefer to sleep in a tent. What endless possibilities Jacobs-Jenkins has set up for clashes - some violent ones - between the siblings, each locked into his own world of need and greed, and ready to leash out against the slightest objection! Beau wants to appropriate, to sell the obscene photographs and make a profit for his side of the family, to reap some of his financial losses, Frank would rather destroy them, reminders of his past family baggage that needs to be unloaded. Toni, the control freak, would prefer to make the final decision on what will be done with them.
Needless to say, coming in at a little short of three hours in three acts, Appropriate, with taut direction from Eric Ting, moves along swiftly and sharply with brilliant dialogue, and exchanges - some painful, others terribly funny - and with outstanding performances from the entire cast. This is indeed an ensemble piece where everyone gets the chance to shine. Hardin, Bishins and Beitzel are equally dynamic in their portrayals. Mahler offers a refreshing look at innocence and sweetness, ensured that she can change Frank through the healing power of love. Tensions between Toni and Rachael escalate consistently throughout, culminating in a family catfight, which is at once sad and viciously hysterical when it occurs.
There may be merely an allusion to black characters and racism in Appropriate, but hate, prejudice and selfishness are at an all time high. Each man is trying his best to do what he thinks is right, but in the long run, they are all men who fail, with perhaps the exception of Frank, who, if he has gotten out in time, may have managed to purify and cleanse himself from the ravages of his past. There's a lot of August Osage County here: the family gathering in the worst of times, some meeting up for the first time and parting with the knowledge that they may never see each other again. The savagery of the final violent fight scene reminded me also of God of Carnage, where humans who verbally attack one another may become increasingly brutal; they can never really go back to where they were before, forgiveness or not. What is done is done. So sad a message for a world in desperate need of change. Sad as well is the message that children will listen, as Sondheim pointed out in his musical Into the Woods. Little Ainsley (Alexander James Rodriguez) finds the KKK hood, and young Cassidy gawks at obscene pictures. But their impressions are only worsened by their parents' fiercely savage actions and a final turning away rather than staying together.
We must mention Mimi Lien's set design of the plantation's interior, which is exceedingly well done and evocative, and the sound design of Matt Tierney. The deafening sound of the cicadas isolates the entire piece and intensifies the horrific imagery.