Familial dysfunction and toxic legacy in ‘Appropriate’ at Broadway’s Hayes Theater

When the patriarch of the Lafayette family dies, two generations of his estranged descendants gather at his plantation house in southeast Arkansas in the summer of 2011, to prepare for an estate sale and auction. But instead of a reunion of shared grieving, loving memories, and reconciliation, it’s a time of angry confrontations, shocking revelations, and conflicted reckonings that result in even more discord, dysfunction, and divisiveness, in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ 2013 dramatic dark comedy Appropriate, now in its Broadway debut with Second Stage at The Hayes Theater. It’s a scathing look, through the lens of family dynamics, at America’s social history, which lays bare the issue of how appropriate it is (read isn’t) to appropriate the most egregious evidence of man’s inhumanity to man for financial gain, biased reinterpretation, or annihilation.

Michael Esper, Elle Fanning, Natalie Gold, Alyssa Emily Marvin, Corey Stoll, and Sarah Paulson. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The show opens with the running metaphor of the very long and extremely loud song of cicadas (sound by Bray Poor and Will Pickens) – insects that only surface once every thirteen years to mate and thereby ensure the survival of the species, and here serve as a parallel to the decibel level and self-propagating behavior of the embattled Lafayette clan. After years apart, the three siblings, their partners, and off-spring gather in the entryway and grand staircase of their late father’s deteriorating bi-level mansion (set by dots), cluttered with boxes, books, clothing, old TVs, furniture, and every type of hoarded item imaginable, with even more unexpected and horrific memorabilia about to be discovered in the unseen upstairs bedrooms.

Directed by Lila Neugebauer with an eye on the sardonic humor of their over-the-top vitriol and ridiculous excuses, Sarah Paulson as the embittered no-holds-barred foul-mouthed oldest daughter Toni – the recently divorced Atlanta-based mother of an unreceptive teenage son Rhys (convincingly played by Graham Campbell), on-site caregiver to her deteriorating father in Arkansas, and executor of his estate – leads an outstanding cast of nine, whose unlikable and damaged characters go at each other with laughable venom and debate the true nature of the man who engendered them, with mounting evidence of who he was and what he believed, even if they refuse to accept it, continue to defend it, or hope to profit from it.

Sarah Paulson. Photo by Joan Marcus.

As Toni’s eldest brother Bo, Corey Stoll, who lives in NYC and remotely funded the expenses (both known and undisclosed) of their father’s later years, is resentful about all the money he spent, but tries to maintain an even temper – until he doesn’t. Natalie Gold as his “Jew wife” Rachael makes her feelings known about the anti-Semitic slurs she heard from her bigoted father-in-law and her dislike of her sister-in-law, with whom she engages in heated and vulgar insult slinging and ultimately comes to blows (fight direction by UncleDave’s Fight-House). Her original plans to take their children – Alyssa Emily Marvin as the studious thirteen-year-old Cassidy, who considers herself an adult, and her younger brother Ainsley, an eight-year-old alternately played by Lincoln Cohen and Everett Sobers (the latter performing on the date I attended) – on a road trip to introduce them to their southern heritage after Bo’s return to work, are abandoned following the disastrous gathering and some outrageously surprising and disturbing reveals by the kids.

Rounding out the blockbuster cast are Michael Esper as Toni and Bo’s younger brother Frank (now calling himself Franz), who was left by the other two with his unstable father in Arkansas, used drugs and alcohol to try to ease the pain of his situation, had no contact with them for a decade, then shows up unannounced for the estate sale to offer a pre-written apology – and to get his share of the money. He is accompanied by his much, much, much younger girlfriend River, played to perfection by Elle Fanning – a 23-year-old neo-hippie from a family of lawyers, who is constantly berated by Toni, but encourages forgiveness and healing, as well as the prospective capital enterprise, no matter how unconscionably abhorrent and inappropriate.

Michael Esper and Elle Fanning. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Costumes by Dede Ayite are well-suited to the personalities and include a knock-out punch near the end of the show that leaves no doubt about the racist intent and actions of the patriarch. The moods, times, and eye-opening shocks are enhanced by lighting by Jane Cox that ranges from the near darkness and mystery of a candlelit night to the sudden blackouts between scenes and hard-hitting revelatory moments.

While the raucous interactions and unhinged verbal sparring of Appropriate bring the mordant laughs, there are also provocative messages delivered by the powerhouse cast, director, design team, and playwright, in a work that will keep you both entertained and appalled.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 40 minutes, including an intermission.

Appropriate plays through Sunday, March 3, 2024, at Second Stage, performing at The Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $159-340, including fees), call (212) 541-4516, or go online.


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