Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley

Appropriate
Princeton Summer Theater
Review by Cameron Kelsall


The Cast
Photo by Megan Berry
Picasso allegedly said that good artists copy but great artists steal. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins qualifies as both a great artist and a zealous, creative bandit. Still in the early stages of his career, Jacobs-Jenkins has made his name on radical reinterpretations of existing plays (An Octoroon, Everybody). But even his wholly original works owe a profound debt to the Western dramatic canon. Case in point: Appropriate, his sprawling family saga from 2014, currently receiving an exemplary area premiere from Princeton Summer Theater.

Appropriate chronicles the fractious Lafayette family, who are entirely Jacobs-Jenkins' creation. Still, my notes are littered with this clan's obvious analogs: Long Day's Journey Into Night (American drama's ur-unhappy family), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (both plays feature an act entitled "Walpurgisnacht"), Buried Child (prodigal children returning), August: Osage County (the violent aftermath of a patriarch's death). Jacobs-Jenkins uses these precedents both to situate his family tale within the American theatrical trajectory and to offer a deconstruction of the very genre to which his play owes its greatest debt. Just as O'Neill chronicled the dark underpinnings of the middle class and Shepard wrestled with the myth of the American West, Jacobs-Jenkins examines the rot that seeps in when generations refuse to address the sins of their forebears.

Appropriate could very well have been a standard-issue domestic drama, the tale of a couple of defeated siblings whose lives turned didn't turn out quite as planned. All the pieces for that type of story are present: eldest sister Toni (Alex Vogelsang) feels she sacrificed her happiness to care for her dying father; brother Bo (Christopher Damen) and his status-conscious wife Rachael (Olivia Levine) reckon with money problems; Franz (Brennan Lowery), the youngest, can't quite break free from the disturbing secrets of his past. These individual trials and tragedies could certainly form the backbone of a more traditional family play, where personal reckoning would be the end result.

But Jacobs-Jenkins forces his characters and his audience to contemplate their complicity in the horrors that permeate the American consciousness. As the Lafayette siblings prepare the family home—a former plantation, its decrepitude perfectly rendered by set designed Joseph Haggerty—for a bank auction, they find an album containing photos of lynched black people. The obvious questions arise: Why did daddy have this? Does this mean he was a racist? While Toni emphatically argues that the old man didn't have a bigoted bone in his body, Rachael counters with evidence that suggests he wasn't too pleased to have a Jewish daughter-in-law.

The significance of the photographs goes beyond whether or not the late Mr. Lafayette, or any of his kin, harbored racist inclinations. Jacobs-Jenkins reminds us that individual racist (or non-racist) tendencies matter little in a system that is built upon tides of systemic racism. The living family's reaction to the discovery of the photo album ideally captures this point. Should they throw it away, and thus continue to bury the atrocities of the past? Should they sell the album as a collector's item, and further participate in the commodification of black bodies? River (Olivia Nice, in a standout performance), Franz's hippy-dippy fiancée, believes in exorcising the spirits that haunt the house and its contents, which perpetuates a certain brand of thought that centuries of horror can be cured through good juju.

Tatiana Pandiani's expertly paced production balances the play's twin themes on a razor's edge, keeping the audience in a necessary state of tension throughout. She never lets the scales tip too greatly to the side of benign family drama, always foregrounding Jacobs-Jenkins' overall mission of provoking thought and unsettling audience expectations. It's a feast for theatergoers who expect more than passive entertainment. The talented cast burrow deep into the skins of this troubled clan, whose last slivers of self-awareness are wrested from them moment to moment. Vogelsang particularly understands Toni's desire to cling to the family myths, because they are literally all she has left.

Appropriate answers many of its smaller, situational questions, leaving its larger points more open-ended. This is as it should be. Especially today, as we are reminded that many of America's old wounds are far from healed, we need plays like Appropriate that reject easy answers and force us to grapple with the difficult and disturbing legacies of our historical and cultural past. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins may be writing well within an identifiable American tradition, but his specific worldview is something entirely new and necessary.

Appropriate continues through Sunday, August 20, 2017, at Hamilton Murray Theater, on the Princeton University campus. Tickets can be purchased online at www.princetonsummertheater.org or by calling 732-997-0205.


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