I just found some good advice in the New York Times. It’s contained in a little essay by Joyce Wadler, who’s surprisingly droll considering that her literary output includes two memoirs of bouts with cancer. Wadler writes a column, addressed to boom generation readers, called I Was Misinformed, and her November 9 installment has to do with getting to a certain age and realizing you have things hidden in the back of your sock drawer that you don’t want your survivors finding after you’re gone.
“The truly considerate person will dispose of potentially humiliating or harmful items the moment he gets really sick,” she suggests, “like a married man I knew who gave his love letters from the other woman to a male friend before he went into the hospital. Then he got better and got the love letters back. Then he died, which was a big mistake on his part, though I hear it made for an interesting moment at the memorial when the widow spotted the other woman. Think of this as a cautionary tale. Horrible things can happen when you leave romantic mementos around the house.”
Horrible indeed. If only there’d been somebody like Wadler around to provide a little guidance when old Ray Lafayette was getting ready to shuffle off this mortal coil. The dead patriarch of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate didn’t leave any incriminating billets-doux, but the dirty little secrets his children and grandkids do uncover while clearing out his house are enough to trigger nearly two and a half hours of amusing hysterics.
Think of Appropriate as August: Osage County without the tragic solemnity. Like Tracy Letts’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner, Jacobs-Jenkins’s black comedy concerns members of an often viciously dysfunctional family, gathered at the old homestead in the wake of dad’s wake. Where Letts casts mama Violet Weston as the Medusa of his piece, Jacobs-Jenkins hands the job to eldest sister Toni. Where Letts sets his narrative in Oklahoma, the better to conjure spirits of the Native American holocaust, Jacobs-Jenkins opts for Arkansas and slavery. Both plays feature a nubile adolescent; a loser relative who’s ennobled by love; a romance between cousins; substance abuse, of course; a house that achieves the status of a character; and, in what has to be a conscious satire on August‘s famous first-act closer, an old-fashioned family brawl.
But there are no quotations from T.S. Eliot in Appropriate, and nothing like the mad poetry Letts’s Violet spouts as she pops another pill and rattles around her messy old manse, where the windows have been boarded up as if she’d already died and left it abandoned.
What there is is a trio of grown siblings with issues up the wazoo. Baby brother Frank is the “family pedophile,” as someone helpfully points out. He arrives by way of the front-parlor window—accompanied by his girlfriend, who’s renamed herself River—and spends much of his visit explaining that he was a very different person back when he did the bad things he did, and, anyway, the girls told him they were 16. Also on hand is Bo, who split for New York at what we suppose was the first opportunity, married Rachael the compulsive Jew, had kids, and earned enough money to keep the past at arm’s length. Bestriding the others like an incredibly nasty colossus is the aforementioned Toni, of whom it can truly be said, hell hath no fury like. You don’t want to cross this woman.
Frank, River, Bo, and Rachael all do manage to cross her, though. And when daddy Ray’s little scrapbook of horrors finds its way into innocent hands, any hope of closing his estate without bloodshed—physical or psychic—is lost. As I say, there’s that brawl.
One of the most interesting things about Appropriate never appears onstage. American theater seems to operate by an unwritten racial code, under which white playwrights can depict pretty much anybody while African-Americans (and Asian- and Latino-Americans, for that matter) stick mainly to creating works about what’s regarded as their own kind. Jacobs-Jenkins violates the code here. He’s black, yet every flesh-and-blood character in his script is white. Though black characters are present, they exist as unseen resonances—like ghosts from a slave cemetery on the Lafayette property. That Jacobs-Jenkins seems to feel comfortable getting so completely inside another racial mind-set suggests that some kind of turning point has been reached regarding who gets to speak for all of us.
Gary Griffin‘s world-premiere staging for Victory Gardens Theater is bright, smart, and entertaining. The only serious flaw arises from the fact that Keith Kupferer is too nice a guy as Bo. Kupeferer makes the middle brother less predatory than he should be, which has the effect of turning Cheryl Graeff’s Rachael into a full-out cartoon shrew, with all the negative stereotyping that implies.
Stef Tovar, on the other hand, finds an anguish in Frank that endears him against all expectation. As River, Leah Karpel finds an engaging combination of the touchy-feely and the tough. And Kirsten Fitzgerald is just plain overwhelming as Toni, using her formidable body to intimidate all comers even as she makes Toni’s own bitterness clear. A fascinating coup de theatre ends the play, but it’s no more a coup than Fitzgerald is.