Review: Appropriate – a provocative dark comedy about the meaning of inheritance

Erin Harrington reviews Appropriate, written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins directed by Nathaniel Lees, at the Court Theatre, 6 May 2023.

The acclaimed American dark comedy Appropriate starts in the massive living room of a decrepit Arkansas plantation house. It’s still, night, the atmosphere oppressive. The light changes almost imperceptibly through the oversized windows as the cicadas’ roaring summer song throbs and loops. We are invited to peer through the gloom at the eclectic partially-organised piles of household crap, aging furniture, dirty windows, dusty chandeliers, stained walls, and a long piece of sheer fabric, perhaps designed to soften the light, that hangs like a enormous spectre in the middle of the room. This painterly opening is languid, and eerie – proper Southern Gothic.

A surprising number of people in the audience titter and whisper, clearly uncomfortable at the lack of actors and movement. I admit I find this reaction frustrating, as I think the opening and its emphasis on place, space and absence is both beautiful and subversive. And anyway, it’s trying to provoke us to sit, to really look. This is an unusual but compelling start to a funny, challenging satirical drama about history, memory and the contemporary legacies of America’s original sin, slavery. And this is all before we’re even introduced to the dysfunctional adult Lafayette siblings, here to sort the house and its contents for auction after the death of the elderly patriarch.

After this period of repose Nathaniel Lees’ intelligent, focused production launches us into some blackly comic Succession-level sibling awfulness. Estranged youngest brother Franz (Tom Eason), a recovering addict, busts in with a much younger girlfriend, River (Lily Bourne), with reconciliation – and maybe a third of the proceeds – on his mind. Harried businessman Bo (Roy Snow) has come down from DC to settle the deal, and get rid of the fog of debt enveloping the house. His wife Rachel (Serena Cotton) is gritting her teeth through the tension, while precocious 13-year-old daughter Cassidy (Laurel Gregory) hovers near any adult drama with interest. Young son Ainsley (a role played beautifully by Barney and Frankie Domigan in turnabout) races round the house looking for treasures. Their teenage cousin Rhys (Will Burns) slumps around in a Tupac t-shirt, suffering in the heat and trying to wait the whole thing out.

At the centre of it all is Eilish Moran ripping it up as Toni, an absolute piece of work in floral shirts and capris. We all know some version of a Toni – a woman (specifically a woman) broken by her thwarted need to be cared for and her own oppressive caregiving roles (self-appointed or otherwise). Toni is the family’s spiteful martyr, someone who feels powerless and maligned, and so exerts power through cruelty and manipulation. And, oops, Rhys doesn’t want to live with her anymore, so there’s that too.

As the play develops, anyone who has lived through the acrimonious aftermath of an unpleasant death and its drawn-out settlement will be ticking off ‘oh god, that too’ items on their bingo cards. So far, so much prickly (and entertaining) verbal sparring, until the awful process of sorting and packing unearths a ghoulish discovery: a big red photo album filled with dozens of grisly postcards and photographs of lynchings. Did they belong to the Daddy who was a good, community-minded, well-respected lawyer, the Daddy who was a terrible hoarder, the Daddy who was maybe a little bit funny about Rachel being Jewish, or maybe not Daddy at all? And who knows what else is hidden in all the junk? Accusations and denials fly, and things spin in unexpected and bleakly funny directions. The album becomes evidence, an artefact, an object of curiosity, a bargaining chip, an offering, and even a commodity, hidden and shuffled about the place like a godawful racist MacGuffin. What is inheritance, anyway?

And so, we have a group of white people bickering in a whitewashed room full of piles of intergenerational shit, including carefully placed antique cameras and empty frames, about whose responsibility all this is. There’s nothing at all about the subjects of the photos, their takers, nor the album’s existence as catalogue. The ethics of viewing images of suffering becomes as banal as the flattened out images of sex and atrocity that Cassidy sees on the internet on the regular; seeing’s not believing but another form of bland consumption. Instead, the siblings and children, each with their own secrets just bursting to come out, must reckon with their assumptions, memories, and identities, all of which get pretty slippery pretty quickly. Stories within stories within stories, each telling a story about one another, from a particular point of view… It’s honestly great: a razor-sharp play about race and responsibility played without an actor of colour on stage, in which we fill in those images for ourselves through their absence.

It’s a pleasure to see the Court tackle such a meaty contemporary work. I’ve missed scripts of this calibre. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ award-winning text is rich, wrapping the immediate drama of the central characters and their complex relationships with layers of nuance. It’s a familiar form, done (and subverted) exceptionally well. Lines regularly have double or triple meanings, like ghostly palimpsests. Motivations and alliances are unsteady. Each sibling has two (or three!) names, their French birthnames – Antoinette, Beauregarde, François- which betray their French colonial heritage, and their diminutive forms, distancing them from their white Southern heritage. The central motif, the constantly thrumming cicadas, points to life cycles, things buried and revived, the way people stick their heads in the ground or ignore the vitality of what’s around them, persistence, loss, reproduction. They are ghosts amongst the trees – a forest that screens the unmarked graves of slaves. The noise will drive you mad. I am interested in how Appropriate plays in New Zealand, as the play assumes some contextual knowledge, and our supremacist histories while driven by the same toxic impulses look a touch different, but I think there’s much to connect with. In any case the actors clearly relish working with such chewy material. It shows in the authenticity and focus of their performances and relationships, even if accents sometimes slip a little.

In the end, the play is hilarious, awfully so, escalating like Tennessee Williams by way of Jerry Springer. I’m a fan of any family dramedy that requires a fight choreographer. But it’s also a very long production – the first act hits at least 90 minutes – and there is a bit of settling to do in terms of pace and the arc of the action. I am not sure yet that each revelation and character turn delivers the impact it needs to. This means I enjoy and appreciate the play, but don’t feel dragged along by its action and disclosures, tight-chested, as I have with comparable works. Is it a product of the satire, which swings between intimacy and critical distance? Who knows. The emotional tension is almost at 100 when we start, so I wonder if it’s that there’s not much room to escalate.

Set designers Mark McEntyre and Tony De Goldi deserve commendation. The Court’s design work is consistently excellent – and here costume, lighting, and sound are all terrific – but this set is stunning. It’s a carefully designed, textured environment that acts as stage and silent witness. The piles of junk, care of properties manager Julian Southgate, are a little like a Rorschach blot; what do you see in here of the characters, their history, America (hello weird Mickey Mouse statue)? We’re asked, at one point, what are houses when we are not here? Some answers: haunted, hated, cluttered, empty, memories, mausoleums, real estate, sanctuaries, oppressive, beloved, just stacks of inert material, everything, nothing. The actors, through Lees’ careful use of space, never feel physically swamped by the set, even as their characters drown and spin out in other ways.

Given all of this I am very surprised that the play’s fascinating coda – no spoilers – moves as quickly as it does when we have been asked to watch so carefully at the beginning. After the Lafayette family’s uncertain reckoning, I was left wanting to linger more in the space, listening out for ghosts and echoes, filling in stories, and looking for things that may be most present through their absence.

Appropriate runs until 3 June 2023.

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