We just can’t get away from it. Even though it premiered in 2013, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate” at Westport Country Playhouse reverberates with today’s headlines about greed and hypocrisy, white supremacy and anti-Semitism. Part ghost story, part memory, overloaded and overlong as it is and veering off in multiple directions with more climaxes that it can handle, “Appropriate” still manages to showcase the author’s very real talent for muscular dialogue and fraught situations.
Act one especially intrigues. Children gather at their recently deceased father’s decaying former plantation in Arkansas to sell the place and auction its contents. Since, as the saying goes, “where there’s a will, there are relatives,” familiar family squabbles are the rule of the day.
The eldest sibling, Toni, believing she has sacrificed most in taking care of their father in his final years, expects the most. Brother Bo is caught between duty to his dead dad and his grasping sis, while another brother, Franz (once just Frank), also shows up to stake his claim. Toni, divorced, has a loser of a grown son, Rhys; Bo has a Jewish wife, Rachael, a nubile late-teen daughter, Cassie, with a crush on Rhys, and Ainsley, a pre-teen hellion. In tow with Franz is the seemingly dippy but actually level-headed River (yes, that’s her current name).
In acts two and three (combined at Westport, doing your tushy no favor), all the vitriol is spilled along with family secrets. Franz, it turns out, has arrived not just for the money but to apologize for his past drug and alcohol behavior, while Rachael fesses up about dad’s demeaning treatment of her.
But those secrets pale in comparison with what they find out about their supposedly upright father. A scrapbook of horrifying photos that are connected to the nearby cemetery where slaves were buried becomes the play’s talisman, not to mention jars of preserved body parts. Soon, everybody will be affected as they discover that, ironically, the horrifying photos might be worth money.
In an interview, Jacobs-Jennkins says he set out to write a family drama in the mode of “Buried Child,” “August: Osage County,” “The Glass Menagerie,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and “Dividing the Estate.” Throw in bits from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (each act is titled similarly to that work as “The Book of Revelations” “Walpurgisnacht” and “The Book of Genesis”) and the result is more hodge-podge than homage.
Despite his purpose, the playwright seems so enamored of writing about family conflicts that he gets sidetracked into enough dysfunctional yelling to rival the deafening cicadas we hear between scenes (courtesy of sound designer Fitz Patton). Those insects, like the South, have a last hurrah before dying. Similarly, the former plantation symbolizes a decaying South, as does the algae-choked lake. Even the internecine squabbles represent past tribal sins which no apology can assuage.
As Toni, Betsy Aidem is tough and toxic, uncompromising and unafraid to be unsympathetic. Actually, no character engages, from David Aaron Baker’s weak-willed Bo to Diane Davis’ shrewish Rachael to Shawn Fagan’s angst-ridden Franz. Even the kids are monsters in waiting: Nick Selting’s Rhys, Allison Winn’s Cassie and Christian Michael Camporin’s Ainsley. Anna Crivelli’s River, an outsider, cuts through the fog to become the only truly dimensional character.
Director David Kennedy finds moments of humor to balance the screaming fits, with the caustic dialogue tumbling out with stabs and counter-stabs until it all begins to sound alike. Andrew Boyce’s cluttered set is a perfect metaphor for decay and dysfunction. But Jacobs-Jenkins, instead of riffing on the standard family play, has been strangled by it.