Donmar Warehouse, London ***
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Runs: 2hrs 30 mins incl 15 min interval Review of perf seen Aug 23, 2019: Where would American theatre be without the family drama? It seems we have been watching them forever, from Arthur Miller to good old Tennessee, to latter day versions such as Bruce Norris and Tracey Letts. And not forgetting Lorraine Hansberry whose Raisin in the Sun begat August Wilson’s African-American decology of plays, all of them centred around a family. Family is, of course, the nucleus, the playing field on which past and present, sibling rivalry, clashes of personality, ambition and past and present histories all crash into each other – a boiling cauldron, melting pot of emotional bonds that bind and hurt as well as nourish. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, a rising star of the American scene presents us with a very knowing account of the American family drama in all its gory richness. With nods in a dozen different directions, particularly to Tennessee, Appropriate is set typically in a southern state. Even the family’s name, Lafayette is significant, harking back to both the American war of Independence – Lafayette was a French-born general who helped America gain its independence from Great Britain – and its Civil War, Lafayette being in Louisiana and part of the southern, slave-owning Confederacy. Slavery lies at the heart of Appropriate, as does a family’s history; who owns it, who gets to write it? In its quirky, gothic way, it is also very much a play of a sense of place – a house’s history. In Ola Ince’s production, designer Fly Davis makes sure her tumbled down plantation house positively reverberates and resonates with the ghosts of its history. It groans, emits strange, ominous sounds; lights go on and off seemingly voluntarily, shutters fly open.
What is the house trying to tell us? What indeed is Jacobs-Jenkins trying to tell us? Certainly that layers of unknown lives lie buried – in this case, slavery. `Daddy’ Lafayette has died and six months on, his offspring are assembled just as the house is about to go up for auction. That in itself leads, as money and death always do, to violent eruption – but ultimately coming from an unexpected quarter. For amongst all the junk being prepared to be discarded, a photograph album of dead black slaves is suddenly unearthed which sets shock waves through Monica Dolan’s screeching termagent of a daughter, Toni, her businessman brother Bo (Steven Mackintosh) and wild card younger brother, Franz (Edward Hogg), back home to repent and be forgiven for a delinquent youth involving drugs and even paedophilia. `Daddy’ it seems was a respected Supreme Court Judge. So the scene is set for furious exchanges defending his name yet trying to come to terms with the evidence before them of a plantation house built on the legacy of slavery.
Throw in some anti-semitism along the way and you have a boiling stew of revelation and recrimination. And from Franz, a manic confessional and attempt at purification which involves actually drowning the possibility of the family recouping some of its wealth. For the well thumbed, stained photo album, Bo discovers, is a collector’s item, worth a fortune. But Fran, in a delirium of New Agey search for redemption, plunges into the nearest lake along with the album. The boy thinks he done good! Delivered at a pitch of constant, unremitting neurosis, this will either tickle your palate or drive the eardrums to rebellion. Dolan sustains an extraordinary level of fury and anger whilst Edward Hogg’s drug crazed Franz and Mackintosh’s Bo provide energetic, sometimes rueful ripostes. Their various spouses and partners – Jaimi Barbakoff’s Rachael, Bo’s taut Jewish wife, Tafline Steen – as Franz’s `outsider’, clear-headed girlfriend, River – and Isabella Pappas as an old-beyond-her-years grandchild, Cassie, also provide varying degrees of outrage, strained wisdom and humour to counteract some of the histrionics.
Interestingly, in what is a practically a final coda, Jacobs-Jenkins seems to push slavery, racism and antisemitism into the background and what comes through instead in Toni’s one quiet moment are universal subjects of love death, reinvention and the narratives we tell ourselves of who we are, our identity. Toni has cared for her two brothers after their mother’s early, harrowing death (echoes of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night) but with the death of `Daddy’, Toni has lost the one person who `knew’ her from the beginning. Thus the loss of a parent has robbed her of a very real sense of who she is, her history. The brothers, too, do not share their sister’s view either of herself or their narrative of the `family’ history. Fascinating stuff. And the house’s response? It goes into meltdown, shudders and shakes as if realigning its own history. The only person we see at the end is an estate agent, sizing the house up for sale. The house lives on. Appropriate By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins Cast: Franz Lafayette: Edward Hogg River Rayner: Tafline Steen Rhys Thurston: Charles Furness Toni Lafayette: Monica Dolan Rachael Kramer-Lafayette: Jaimi Barbakoff Ainsley Krame-Lafayette: Orlando Roddy, Oliver Savell Bo Lafayette: Steven Mackintosh Cassidy Kramer Lafayette: Isabella Pappas The Stranger: Ed Thorn Director: Ola Ince Designer: Fly Davis Lighting Designer: Anna Watson Sound Designer: Donato Wharton Fight Director: Bret Yount Casting Director: Julia Horan CDG First perf of this production of Appropriate at the Donmar Warehouse, Aug 16, 2019 and runs to Oct 5, 2019. World premiere 2013 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, Louisville and in Chicago. New York premiere produced by Signature Theatre, NYC. Developed through the Sundance Institute and Vineyard Arts Project. Review published on this site, Aug 28, 2019