‘Appropriate’ Review: Sarah Paulson Is Entertainingly Vicious in Caustic Broadway Family Drama

There are no Black characters in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ caustic family drama Appropriate, but they nevertheless haunt the play. They are the unmarked graves scattered over the grounds of the former plantation home in southeast Arkansas, where the story’s action takes place. They are the spirits, felt like a shiver by guests in the home. And they are the objects collected — hoarded, really — over decades by the estate’s patriarch.

He’s dead now, and Appropriate, which opened Monday at Second Stage’s Hayes Theater in New York, concerns the blistering reunion of his heirs. The production is the first of Jacobs-Jenkins’ original works to be on Broadway and is staged by Lila Neugebauer (Causeway), who directed the dramatist’s Everybody at Signature Theater in 2017.

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Appropriate begins with the shrill whine of cicadas. As that noise quiets, others intensify: the sounds of bodies shuffling in the bushes and the grunts of physical exertion. We see Franz (Michael Esper), the youngest of the three Lafayette siblings, sneaking into his father’s home with his fiancée River (Elle Fanning). She’s a new-agey spiritual type, part anger management therapist and part life coach. It’s the eve of a scheduled estate auction (a last-ditch attempt to pay off the late Lafayette’s debts) and Franz wants to mend his relationships with his sister Toni (an excellent Sarah Paulson) and brother Bo (Corey Stoll).

“This is it?” River asks after she and Franz have maneuvered their way into the parlor. The glow of a starry night sky (lighting by Jane Cox) illuminates the space, crowded with antique furniture, dusty books, half-packed boxes, and bits and bobs. “It’s just different from what I imagined,” she continues, circumventing her boyfriend’s defensive posture. “I don’t know — I hear plantation, I think more … Gone With the Wind, less … clutter … But I love it?”

The tones of River’s comment — the initial confusion, followed by apprehension; the realization of unmet expectations; and an unsure but still enthused acceptance — captures the experience of watching Neugebauer’s less satirically charged, more measured version of Appropriate.

Jacobs-Jenkins, an Obie Award-winning playwright and showrunner of Kindred, delights in subverting expectations and destabilizing tradition. His plays toy with form — the morality play, the workplace comedy, the domestic drama — to explore the United States’ posture in relation to the past and its influence on how Americans metabolize the present.

In Appropriate, he’s also having fun and investigating curiosities about whiteness and theater-making. A 2019 interview with the Evening Standard revealed his motivations for writing his own version of a beloved American genre: “I was being treated like a misbehaved child,” the dramatist said, referring to the reception of his 2010 play Neighbors. “And I started wondering, well, what is a well-behaved child in the theater doing?” On the decision to assume the perspective of an all-white family, he said it was “an experiment to see how differently I would be treated as a participant in the market. And I was treated very differently.”

As the siblings in Appropriate prepare to sell their father’s things, they discover troubling ephemera among his belongings. A portrait of a man the siblings don’t (or more accurately refuse to) recognize emerges, forcing everyone in the family — from Franz and Toni to Bo and his wife, Rachel (Natalie Gold) — to wrestle with their racial attitudes and illusions.

Rachel, who accuses the Lafayettes of alienating her because she’s Jewish, wants to protect her 13-year-old daughter Cassidy (a superb Alyssa Emily Marvin) and 8-year-old son Ainsely (Lincoln Cohen at the preview I attended, Everett Sobers at others) from the findings until they can curate an ad-hoc lesson plan on racism.

Toni isn’t particularly concerned about her teenage son Rhys (Graham Campbell), but she does dive head-on into denialism. Bo and, in some ways, Franz wonder about the market value of these items. How each member of the family handles these discoveries reveals their willingness to engage with the truth. Some want to avoid it, others want to understand it, but few can really confront its implications.

As it subverts tradition, Appropriate also insists on the truth that all American stories are inherently racialized. The lack of a Black character doesn’t mean a work isn’t riddled with anxieties about the presence of the other.

It’s a thesis familiar from Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, in which the author proves how large the “Africanist presence” looms in white American novels. But there’s also Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, a family drama about three brothers dealing with the political stakes of their identity, which was produced on Broadway in 2018. In 2017, the poet Claudia Rankine founded The Racial Imaginary Institute and dedicated the money from her MacArthur Genius Grant to studying whiteness. And more recently, Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, a story about four white people trying to stage a politically correct play for Native American Heritage month, had a run on Broadway.

Appropriate debuted in New York in 2014 (at Signature Theatre, directed by Liesl Tommy). But how does it function in 2023, on Broadway, aimed at a wider audience, some less familiar with Jacobs-Jenkins’ work? It’s still funny and sophisticated. The jokes are biting and some lines are impressively abrasive. But it edges away from the satire.

Neugebauer’s fine direction instead leans into the acid drama of fraught sibling relationships. The play treats each character’s plight with an earnest consideration. There’s a more reflective, tragicomic stance as it considers what happens to families afraid to confront the past. It’s a question the nation has been struggling with more publicly in recent years. Appropriate feels more like an earnest addition to those considerations than a sendup of why family dramas are the primary mode of engaging with questions of racial rot.

The first-rate cast plunges into the depths of the Lafayettes’ psychic damage with performances that highlight, with subtle heart, the desperation brought on by collective delusion.

Paulson brings a lot of humor to Toni, a woman whose frustration and anger at being saddled with all the care work for her dying father has calcified into vicious cruelty toward her siblings. She doesn’t miss a beat with her insults, which become increasingly corrosive.

She’s great alongside Stoll’s Bo, a sibling who mistakenly thinks his geographic distance from the family’s estate shields him from engaging in similar behavior. The actor nails the delivery of a key revelation in the third act, even if the play’s more grounded, naturalistic direction means his character’s dramatic arc feels more abrupt than it should.

Esper teases out the sincerity of his character’s sometimes misguided efforts to atone for his own past as well as his family’s. Fanning’s River (the actress is making her Broadway debut) gives us some of the play’s best-delivered jokes and a relatable witness to this family’s psychological warfare.

All of the drama takes place in the high-ceilinged parlor of the former plantation home. Dots’ scenic design is effective in its meticulous detail. The design collective constructs the Lafayette home as a creaky abode filled with the possessions of a dead man who was supposed to be a Supreme Court justice. The set is marked by an appropriately decaying splendor — unpolished gold, sun-damaged paintings.

On the subject of objects, I found myself most fascinated by how the characters physically handle these violent discoveries. The furious snatches, the caressing, the clutching for dear life, the slams to the ground — they are melodramatic gestures, always most apparent during the siblings’ most biting arguments. They differentiate how race is dealt with privately versus publicly. They signal the past’s proximity even in the most benign interpersonal interactions and are reminders that the spirits haunting the Lafayette estate would and could not rest until acknowledged.

Venue: Hayes Theater, New York
Cast: Graham Campbell, Lincoln Cohen, Michael Esper, Elle Fanning, Natalie Gold, Alyssa Emily Marvin, Sarah Paulson, Everett Sobers, Corey Stoll

Playwright: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Director: Lila Neugebauer
Scenic designer: dots
Costume designer: Dede Ayite
Lighting designer: Jane Cox
Sound designers: Bray Poor, Will Pickens
Presented by Second Stage, Ambassador Theater Group Productions, Amanda DuBois, Annapurna Theater, Bad Robot Live

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