I saw the original production of Appropriate, which is playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through September 2nd, when it debuted Off-Broadway a few years ago. At that time I described it as a poor man’s version of the play August: Osage County. I wasn’t looking to compare the two dramas, but more as a point of reference. Both revolve around a gathering of dysfunctional family members, the divulging of household secrets, and a lot of shouting and screaming between siblings.
|L-R: Betsy Aidem and David Aaron Baker in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate,” directed by David Kennedy, at Westport Country Playhouse, now playing through September 2. (203) 227-4177. www.westportplayhouse.org Photo by Carol Rosegg|
However, with the explosive demonstrations between white nationalists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, VA earlier this month and the debate over racism and “very fine people” the play takes on a more ominous undertone. I still wouldn’t classify the show as a fully gripping production, but the work does provoke more introspection and reflection by audience members due to the significant “reveal,” its consequences, and controversy.
In brief, the plot centers on two brothers, a sister, their significant others and family members, who have converged at the rundown, ancestral home of their recently deceased father. Their goal is to sort through the mountains of refuse and clutter he left behind in preparation for selling the house and its contents. Toni (Betsy Aidem), the manic, self-pitying sister, has taken charge of the purging process, which has, temporarily, led to a cessation of long time tensions and simmering hostilities with her brother, Bo (David Aaron Baker), and his wife, Rachel (Diane Davis). With the unexpected arrival of the black sheep of the clan, Franz (Shawn Fagan) and his girlfriend, River (Anna Crivelli), and the discovery of a mysterious and deeply disturbing photo album the tentative détente among the group very quickly disintegrates as in-fighting and accusations punctuate the stage. There is no comfortable ending or reconciliation between the family members as each person heads back to their lives, slightly battered and disconsolate.
Playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins has taken well-established themes of family strife and friction to create a play that seethes with age-old slights and discord. In Act I, the volatility of the players, the interplay between the individuals, and the jarring disclosures that unfold provide engrossing drama. However, the remaining two Acts lose steam and momentum. Too much of the action and dialogue seems empty, without meaningful and engrossing substance. The soliloquies and confessions come up somewhat hollow. Add to that characters that are not very likeable and the result is a production that is loud, but bereft of a satisfying conclusion. In fact, I thought it was rather a disappointing end.
|L-R: Shawn Fagan, Diane Davis, Nick Selting, Betsy Aidem, and David Aaron Baker in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate,” directed by David Kennedy, at Westport Country Playhouse, now playing through September 2. (203) 227-4177. www.westportplayhouse.org Photo by Carol Rosegg|
The cast is uniformly fine, with well-defined roles. On the one hand, they can be seen as one-note characters—this one is the resentful one, that one self-absorbed, this person with a martyr complex--but the actors do give some depth and shading to their portrayals. Betsy Aidem as the tortured, self-righteous, and self-appointed head of the Lafayette clan plays the part to the hilt. She can come across as too shrill and whiny, but this is a woman that has had many personal and professional setbacks so, while she is not a pleasant person, her temperament is understandable. David Aaron Baker as brother Bo, is a volcano ready to erupt with pent-up emotions and incredulity. The actor deftly, yet vainly, straddles the line between mediation and chaos. Diane Davis as Bo’s wife Rachel gives a rewarding performance, showing equal parts conciliation, indignation, and pure disdain for her bossy sister-in-law as well as her position within the family. Shawn Fagan as brother Franz, with his hidden and erratic past, comes across as both thick-headed and vulnerable, with his true motives never fully revealed. Anna Crivelli as Franz’s girlfriend, River, is suitably wide-eyed and outwardly naïve, but has an undercurrent of steeliness and savviness. The children of the two families, Rhys (Nick Selting), Cassie (Allison Winn), and Ainsley (Christian Michael Camporin) are serviceable in their roles with Selting having more substance to his character as a somewhat misunderstood and troubled teen.
|L-R: Betsy Aidem and Nick Selting in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate,” directed by David Kennedy, at Westport Country Playhouse, now playing through September 2. (203) 227-4177. www.westportplayhouse.org Photo by Carol Rosegg|
Director David Kennedy skillfully builds up the pulse of the production to a sustained and cacophonous crescendo by the end of Act I. He adroitly positions the performers to create a smooth and methodical flow as the actors and actresses enter and exit the stage. Acts II and III are more problematic. There are less group scenes and more individual pontifications and self-serving soliloquies that are more difficult to wring dramatic tensions from. Even with the shortcomings of the play he draws out a sufficient amount of tension to keep the audience intrigued most of the time.
Scenic Designer Andrew Boyce has crafted a realistic deteriorated plantation home. There is enough bric-a-brac and heaps of useless items strewn around and piled high around the set to gladden any hoarder. Matthew Richards’ Lighting Design provides ghostly, moonlit effects, especially at the conclusion of the production (Note: don’t leave until the final curtain comes down). Fitz Patton’s Sound Design succeeds at two levels. First, is the almost suffocating noise of cicadas used throughout the play, which help define the uncomfortable, smothering environment inside the household. Second, are the eerie, other-worldly sounds used during the final minutes of the show.
Appropriate, a flawed, occasionally arresting drama, playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through September 2nd. For tickets, go to: http://www.westportplayhouse.org or call (888) 927-7529.