August 16, 2017

Family Secrets Erupt in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate”; Princeton Summer Theater Presents Drama by Lewis Center Playwright

Princeton Summer Theater is presenting Appropriate at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Written by Princeton University alumnus Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (who graduated in 2006), this contemporary drama is an apt conclusion to a season that has examined “whether it is better to look to the past for inspiration or to move in the direction of future progress,” as Princeton Summer Theater’s website states.

In Pippin, the title character comes of age and anticipates his future. The affluent heroine of Spider’s Web is a fantasist whose comfortable, orderly world permits her to live for the present. By contrast, The Crucible presents conflict as ever-present, using a brutal historical event as an allegory for more recent injustice.

Set in the present day, Appropriate develops themes explored by all three of these shows, epitomizing the exploration of tension between generations and eras. Princeton Summer Theater has given audiences a season that can be interpreted as a variation on A Christmas Carol in its interplay between past, present, and future. 

Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins is capable of sharp, concise dialogue. (“Pardon me, what are you forgiving us for?” a character snaps.) However, Appropriate is equally powerful when it eschews the spoken word, choosing instead to illustrate the passage of time by enveloping the audience in sound and an alternation of light and darkness. This is well executed by Sound Designer Sam Bezilla and Lighting Designer Sydney Becker.

Before a word of dialogue is spoken, the audience hears the pervasive song of cicadas. The insect song also is heard by Frank (“Franz”) Lafayette and his fiancée, River Rayner, as they enter a once-elegant but rundown house — through a window.

“When you said ‘plantation,’ I thought more … Gone with the Wind,” River complains. This reference echoes The Glass Menagerie: “All everybody talked was Scarlett O’Hara,” remarks the protagonist in Tennessee Williams’ 1944 play.

Indeed, Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins openly borrows from several playwrights: “I ended up deciding I would steal something from every play that I liked,” he has remarked, “and put those things in a play and cook the pot to see what happens.” Along with August: Osage County, a 2007 play by Tracy Letts, Appropriate updates the family drama — a genre espoused by Mr. Williams — for a contemporary audience.

Arguably, Appropriate also is a response to A Raisin in the Sun. In that 1959 play by Lorraine Hansberry, an African-American family’s hopes center on the purchase of a home. In Appropriate, a white family desperately needs to sell a house.

Franz has brought River to his recently deceased father’s Arkansas plantation house after being notified — by a source that is not revealed until late in the story — that his siblings are attempting to prepare the house for an estate sale. Franz’s recently divorced sister Toni already is there with her teenage son Rhys. Bo — the brother of Toni and Franz — is there with his wife Rachael and their children: the teenage Cassidy and her younger brother Ainsley.

The interplay between past, present, and future is exemplified by the characters, particularly the women. River is engaged to Franz, and we will discover that she is pregnant. Rachael is married to Bo, and they have children. Toni is divorced, though her marriage produced a son. Similarly, there are three generations: the dead Lafayette patriarch, his children and their families, and his grandchildren.

The estranged Lafayette siblings are desperate to sell the house and its contents, to pay off debts incurred by an ill-fated attempt by their father to convert the house into a bed & breakfast. As circumstances threaten the sale and its preparations, an incessant stream of accusations recalls the trials in The Crucible.

In its current condition the house is unsuitable for future residents or guests. Joseph Haggerty, who designed the luxurious, symmetrical drawing room for Spider’s Web, has designed a set that is equally elaborate but asymmetrical. Clutter and torn wallpaper indicate the family’s attitude toward the house — and each other. The only similarity to the Spider’s Web set is the presence of a clock in the center of the room.

Appropriate can be interpreted as one possible future for descendents of the 1950s family in Spider’s Web. In that play, the prevalent mood is one of amused élan, no matter how dire the circumstances. There is little demonstration of concern for the future, or fear of consequences. The Lafayette patriarch also appears to have lived day-to-day, leaving his estranged children to settle his affairs. A realtor who arrives to appraise the house, is — in his own way — as probing and inquisitive as the detective in Spider’s Web.

Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins, who is African American, explores racial tension in his works. Rachael reveals that she never felt entirely accepted by Bo’s family because she is Jewish. Later, the process of cleaning the house leads to the discovery of a book containing photos of dead African Americans, who apparently have been lynched.

Of course, this book immediately becomes a source of contention. First, the question is raised as to why it was in the house, and the extent to which it held meaning for the father. (“Your father was a slave to his upbringing,” Rachael tells Bo.) Then, there is debate as to what should be done with it: should it be thrown away, donated to a museum, or sold? Throughout the play, the family members take turns staring at the book, reacting to the disturbing contents in their own way.

This is an eerie answer to The Crucible. The victims of the witch trials are given a minimal opportunity to speak in their defense. Here, the victims of an injustice — indicative of an ugly aspect of American history — are reduced to voiceless abstractions.

Under the skillful direction of Tatiana Pandiani, this cast gives consistently layered performances. Just as the script uses more than dialogue, these actors use body language to great effect. The ensemble has excellent chemistry that contradicts — and enhances — the discord between their characters.

As Toni, Alex Vogelsang is aggressive and accusatory. Toni, as the only character who cherishes the memory of her father, is a gatekeeper. Ms. Pandiani’s staging makes this clear by having her sit in front of doors and block other characters’ access to the stairway. Her predominant action entails attack, as she verbally assaults everyone except her son Rhys, with whom she is desperate to connect.

By contrast, Olivia Nice is a calming influence as River. She often attempts to restrain or protect other characters, as she puts a comforting arm around Franz after he quarrels with his siblings.

As Bo, Christopher Damen’s objective is to defend himself, as he attempts to deflect Toni’s many verbal attacks. He often keeps his arms folded in front of him. Olivia Levine is equally defensive as Rachael, who frequently raises her hand in an attempt to halt the proceedings.

To Franz, Brennan Lowery brings a nervous energy, opening and closing his hands. He and Bo both use the sofa, newly cleared of junk, as a refuge on which they attempt not to be part of Toni’s quarrels with other characters. Their objective is to escape confrontation, although Bo is one of Toni’s most frequent sparring opponents.

As Rhys, Noah Riley’s motivation also entails avoidance, as he attempts to push Toni away. (It is hinted that Toni did not intend to get pregnant, and has made Rhys feel unwanted in the past, though she spends the play making futile attempts to repair their relationship.)

Meagan Raker, by contrast, is breezy and cheerful as Cassidy. The cicada song piques Cassidy’s interest, and her rapid movements resemble those of a bug. Sawyer Berness as Ainsley, and Aidan Gray as the Realtor, complete the talented cast.

Costume designer Julia Peiperl has provided the actors with clothes that suit their characters well. Rhys wears a Metallica shirt, while Toni wears a sweat jacket that she does not seem to have finished putting on; she is not particularly comfortable wearing her clothes, just as the family does not enjoy inhabiting the house.

Earlier this year the Lewis Center for the Arts, which has named Branden Jacobs-Jenkins as their next Roger S. Berlind Playwright, presented a staged reading of An Octoroon. For the Lewis Center, Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins has written Girls, a contemporary adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae. Girls will premiere October 6 at the Wallace Theater in the Lewis Arts Complex. In 2014 Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins won Obie awards for the off-Broadway productions of Appropriate and An Octoroon.

Appropriate is an edgy drama for the 21st century, and a worthy continuation of a genre espoused by classics such as The Glass Menagerie and A Raisin in the Sun. With this compelling production of Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’ contemporary masterpiece, Princeton Summer Theater concludes a well-conceived, successful season.