Broadway review

Sarah Paulson takes her ‘Appropriate’ family to the edge

The Daily Beast

December 18, 2023

In Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Obie-winning 2014 play, a money-obsessed white family will do all it can—including viciously destroying itself—rather than face its own racist history.

The title of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ debut, very starry Broadway play (Hayes Theater, booking to March 3, 2024) takes in the two dictionary definitions of the word “Appropriate,” when that word is said differently. Both are central to the play, which won the Obie for Best New American Play (along with An Octoroon) in 2014, when both plays were off-Broadway. One definition is “what is suitable or fitting for a particular purpose, person, occasion, etc.” The other is “to take without permission or consent; seize; expropriate; to steal, especially to commit petty theft.”

This is also a play, directed by Lila Neugebauer, of interweaving layers and intentions: a raucous, argument-filled family drama meets comedy, and a pointed indictment of racism meets ghost story. There are no visible ghosts, but the past vibrates meaningfully in each scene. As the lights darken at the beginning of the play, and between scenes, the cacophonous sound of cicadas fills the theater—like, really fills it, as if there is no escape from them (Bray Poor and Will Pickens have designed this creepy wall of sound).

In front of us first, in the middle of the night, is the darkened living room of the former plantation home of the Lafayette family in southeast Arkansas. Jammying open a window, Franz (Michael Esper), who is feverishly focused on atonement, and his partner River (Elle Fanning—hippy, but not so dippy it turns out) gain entry into a room that, when light eventually illuminates the gloam, is piled high with clutter (the excellent design is by dots). Outside are two cemeteries—one for the Lafayette ancestors; the other for their slaves.

“They don’t have grave markers or anything,” Franz says of the latter, a meaningful opening remark in a play that is about the erasure not just of those slaves, but also an erasure of responsibility for their enslavement, and a willed, deliberate abdication of knowledge of what means in the present. Another linked theme between past and present: money. Just as the slaves were bought and sold as human beings by this family in the past, so in the present their humanity is reduced to what they are worth—again to the same white family.

This intensely serious theme is filtered through a series of very funny, very serious firecracker rows between the characters, as siblings, partners, and children gather for an estate sale of the contents of the home belonging to dead paterfamilias Ray; family plus money plus secrets equal multiple explosions. Two-time Pulitzer finalist Jacobs-Jenkins really knows how to craft cutting zingers, wincingly comic and dramatic set-pieces, and lacerating verbal battles.

One hopes there are enough throat lozenges backstage to offset all the shouting (as brilliantly as it is written, the play feels too shouty at times, too beholden to constant blow-ups and conflagrations). Sarah Paulson’s Toni particularly needs those lozenges. Toni, fired up by the bitterness of the child who has taken on the lion’s share of caring and organizing, is furious at not just Franz (why is he called Franz, he’s Frank!), but all the perceived shortcomings of those around her.

Are he and River on drugs, she wonders. “Honestly, if you ask me, all they’re doing is just sniffing around for money, which is just disgusting. You don’t know about your father’s funeral, but you somehow know the exact date his entire estate is getting liquidated? I call bullshit.”

Paulson—a machine gun of snark, snarl, and curled-lip baiting, malignly knowing every nerve to tweak—calls bullshit on pretty much everything around her, enough for brother Bo (an excellent Corey Stoll, New York-wry, though primed to explode) to request, and may be echoed by many in the audience: “Will you just calm the frick down? What is the use of whipping yourself into a frenzy right now?” He feels he has been footing all the bills, and Toni, in her martyrishness, has held “the rest of us hostage to your hardship.”

The family’s total lack of awareness of history and context is first signaled by Bo’s wife Rachael (Natalie Gold, bracingly in no mood to be the polite sister-in-law any more), who is looking forward to a family road trip after the auction, “a little American History Southern Tour-type thing…through Mississippi, Louisiana—all those places—experience some of Daddy’s heritage.” Bo responds that he grew up in D.C. (Rachael: “DC is the South.” Toni: “No it isn’t.”) Rachael also claims that Ray called her “Jew wife”—which Toni declines to believe, and instead, she claims as an act of sarcasm, recycles Antisemitic insults to her sister-in-law’s face.

Denial of racism, denial of what is staring this white family in the face, denial of what is a part of them, comes to be a cleverly repeated theme. The most glaring example of this is how they respond to a book of photographs showing the bodies of dead Black victims of lynching that their father owned.

A truly insane moment featuring Rachael and Bo’s young son Ainsley (Lincoln Cohen at the performance I attended, Everett Sobers at others) occurs at the end of a scene in which all the adults start fighting—a gasp-out-loud moment which again crystallizes the collective denial that both pieces of evidence show that their father could be a racist. Couldn’t both have come from somewhere else? Maybe he was a collector? Maybe these things were left here. Toni will just about allow her father “was a product of his upbringing just like everyone else and, like everyone else, he had his issues.”

Now, the issue is money, not the horror staring at them from the page. Bo says he’s been advised by an expert that their father “was sitting on a gold mine—and if we did this right, through an actual auction house or a private dealer, we’re looking at the upper six figures here—maybe more!”

When more evidence presents itself—jars of mummified body parts or bones—the parents beg for their immediate disposal. It’s not that they cannot bear to consider what all this means, they simply steadfastly refuse to countenance it. Bo wonders if their dad had all these awful artefacts as an investment. Or maybe it was here when he got here—just stuff he’d wound up with—stuff he didn’t know what to do with just… accrual.”

It is outwardly oblivious racism of the most insidious kind. “Who is Emmett Till?” Cassidy (Alyssa Emily Marvin), daughter of Rachael and Bo, asks of River; both should know and do not. The question alone indicates a gap in education, awareness, and a commitment to learn—just as the play elucidates the same. She is attracted to her aunt Toni’s son Rhys (Graham Campbell), who in a glancing moment of pure nastiness shows just how right Rachael was.

But the family is in retreat from any truths to confront. “Maybe he used the wrong word for somebody from time to time but that’s just his generation—and it was never the—the—the N-word or anything like that!” Toni says of Ray. How could their father—“a brilliant man—a brilliant, civilized man! A reader! A thinker! A loving person! Not some sort of illiterate hick!”—be a racist? If he disliked Rachael, “it wasn’t because she was Jewish. It was because she is an annoying person,” Toni says. Deny, deny, deny.

The play’s comedy (Rachael is kind of annoying, even if she is right) erupts at the strangest, most welcome moments. An excruciating moment—as one character accidentally sees another masturbating—is the best use of the play’s staircase, and played to showcase the separate realizations of what one is seeing, and what the other is being seen doing.

Fanning is excellent as River, who seems like a pure spirit producing vegan breakfasts and preaching peace and light, but who also has a watchful eye on ensuring Franz gets what is due to him.

“And what are you—a lawyer?” Toni asks her. River: “No, but my father is. And my mother… And two of my sisters… For the record, unless you can show us a will that says so, you don’t have a legal right to withhold anything from him.” (Why Frank was a juvenile delinquent, and his crime—so much worse than River knows—is one of the play’s late detonations.) For Toni, River is a “sweet girl” who will ultimately be so used she will become bitter.

“What if this house is trying to say something to us right now, Cassidy?” River wonders. We wonder the same, as the house looms as both character and active repository for the family’s dysfunction. It finally, quite literally, becomes the show’s sole character.

Soon, the family are screaming at each other about who owns the awful pictures, Bo shouting the white lament about paying for the sins of people whose beliefs he does not share. “You people just need to say what it is you want me to do and move on! I didn’t enslave anybody! I didn’t lynch anybody! I certainly didn’t give your grandma any fucking blankets or burn down her fucking village! You don’t know my life!” This again becomes a moment of outrageous laughter, as he’s been shouting at River under the impression she was “Indian or something!? Part Indian—Native American?” No she is not, she says.

“Then why are you dressed like that? Why is your name River?!” Bo seethes at her hippyish garb.

The shouting matches become denser, faster, funnier, more shocking—and are so briskly staged, when one person is sounding off the others gather around them almost as a supporting chorus until it’s their turn to go at it. “You are a crappy, terrible, awful mother who probably couldn’t grow a house plant if you tried, because you are a poisonous, toxic person who destroys every single thing she touches,” Rachael says to Toni.

There is, strangely but maybe tellingly, very little reflection of the racist history staring the Lafayettes in the face, or what their responsibility should be toward it. Instead, the family is stuck in the fault-line of the two meanings of the title of the play. The audience I sat among sighed at the characters’ insensitivity and myopia, and their ability to say and absolutely do the wrong thing, or ignore what is right in front of them. Appropriate shows how the persistence of racism and prejudice does not just come down to the practice of overt racism, but the practice of unthinking, lazy, deliberate ignorance.

The play ends with meaningfully unhappy endings all round, as if the house and its seeping, past-into-present poison have resoundingly won. A family and its terrible legacy both lie in tatters—but that isn’t the end of the play. In a sequence that’s part Fall of the House of the Usher part Poltergeist, we see how a future of days, nights, and unknown time, human intrusions, and encroaching nature wring their own destructive effects on the house. Finally, an unknown man appears—a surveyor, broker?—inspecting the room, again with a view one suspects to make money. If so (unless he’s a ghost with a clipboard), he is no different to the Lafayette family, and—just as with them—one suspects that whatever he uncovers or encounters in the house won’t stop him in his relentless pursuit of profit.