Reviews Broadway Published 3 February 2024

Review: Appropriate at the Hayes Theater

Helen Hayes Theater ⋄ November 29, 2023-March 3, 2024

Loren Noveck muses on the different meanings of “appropriate” and economic precariousness in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Broadway debut.

Loren Noveck
Michael Esper, Elle Fanning, Natalie Gold, Alyssa Emily Marvin, Corey Stoll, and Sarah Paulson in <i>Appropriate</i>. Photo: Joan Marcus

Michael Esper, Elle Fanning, Natalie Gold, Alyssa Emily Marvin, Corey Stoll, and Sarah Paulson in Appropriate. Photo: Joan Marcus

Six months after the death of their patriarch, who’d lived out his declining years in the equally declining Arkansas plantation house that the family had inhabited for seven generations, the Lafayette siblings gather to settle his estate. By which they mean, try, by means of an auction and an estate sale, to recoup enough to cover the debts their father incurred in said declining years. The house is a hoarder’s nest, with artifacts dating back to the childhood the Lafayette siblings hardly even spent there (the set, by dots, is jam-packed with bins and piles of board games from the 70s and 80s, old stereo equipment, clothing, towering mounds of National Geographic magazines) and a few nastier surprises awaiting them.  Their motives for showing up differ: Oldest sibling, Toni (Sarah Paulson), has to be there because she’s the executor–and she fired the company who was organizing the sale of the contents–but she’s also trying to get some bonding time with her teenage son, Rhys (Graham Campbell), who’s been in a lot of trouble lately. Middle brother Bo (Corey Stoll) and his wife, Rachael (Natalie Gold), have made a little bit of a family vacation about taking their kids on a tour of their father’s family history; they’re going to road-trip back to New York via the generic South. And troubled youngest brother Franz (Michael Esper) has come back for the amends-making stage of his twelve-step journey, with a young fiancee (Elle Fanning) in tow–but he has to sneak in through a window because he’s been estranged from his family for too long to be invited. 

So far, so Southern Gothic, though set in 2011, where the women–particularly Toni and Bo’s wife, Rachael (Natalie Gold)–don’t have to swallow quite so much of their rage. If you started Cat on a Hot Tin Roof six months after Big Daddy’s death, it might feel a little like this. But if for Tennesee Williams the repressed that bubbles up always seems to be about sex and personal shame, in Appropriate, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is dealing with the deeper shames of American history. Because buried in the junk that Bo’s tween daughter (Alyssa Emily Marvin) and eight-year-old son (Lincoln Cohen or Everett Sobers) excavate from their grandfather’s study are some horrifying artifacts: an album full of lynching photos, and some mason jars full of even grislier souvenirs of that era. (The characters may not quite recognize the latter, but we in the audience do.) 

These discoveries raise some inevitable questions about their deceased father, questions that only Rachael–the outsider, the NYC helicopter parent, the Jewish wife of the brother who fled the South for a big-deal New York media career–has any interest in engaging. Until it turns out–because of course it does-there’s a market for even the nastiest artifacts.

Appropriate has been running for a few months, but due to the vagaries of the 2024 COVID season, I’m only getting in to see it now. So the ground has been well covered; it’s hardly news to say that playwright Jacobs-Jenkins has a gift for tapping in to the anxieties of these first decades of the twenty-first century, and marrying that investigation with a restless curiosity about form. Or that director Lila Neugebauer doesn’t only get marvelous performances out of her ensemble of high-powered actors but makes you feel the physical tension between them; characters are always looming over one another from the staircase or balcony, moving apart like those little magnetic dogs with oppositional poles. Toni and Bo’s daughter, Cassidy, keep asking Rhys for hugs, and it feels almost like they have to cling to each other or else be drawn back apart. This play, compared to Jacobs-Jenkins’s later, more metadramatic works, is straightforwardly realist, for the most part, and yet that return of the repressed leaks out in theatrical ways that Neugebauer makes good use of—the oppressive sound of cicadas, more a roar than a whisper and at times (in Bray Poor and Will XX’s sound design) sounding almost like radio static, or like the whispers of ghosts. A bleak flash of acid-yellow light, at the moments when something has been revealed. 

Similarly, there’s not much more to say about Sarah Paulson’s performance, venomously over the top yet handled with an icy control; she’s blowing the roof off with the rage of a woman who’s spent the last two years seeing the pillars of her life crumble—divorce, job loss, her only son in serious legal trouble, her father dead—and is now having even her faith in that father tested. Or about Corey Stoll’s Bo, whose own narcissism takes the form of a matter-of-fact confidence that he’s the smartest guy in the room; the higher Paulson’s fire burns, the more supercilious Stoll becomes. Or about Elle Fanning’s River, with her shining transparent face and the confidence of her own naive good intentions. Or Michaell Esper’s Franz, crumbling in on himself as his amends don’t go quite as he’d imagined.  

So I want to muse a little bit about that market for the lynching artifacts and some further observations on money, and on the particular way that economic precarity becomes the engine that drives the plot. (The play’s title is usually pronounced as the adjective, with the short “a” at the end, but as the opening project reminds you, the verb sense–to take possession of, to expropriate–equally pertains.) The Lafayette family descended from a plantation, from the stratum of society that enslaved people, and kept them divided even in death, into two separate private cemeteries on the property–which, ironically or prophetically, is one of the things that makes the house hard to sell to a developer. That family legacy has literally become a drag on their economic prospects, even as that inherited wealth has dwindled with the generations. The Lafayette father might have been less rich, but was a Man of Consequence, considered for a Supreme Court seat, at least in Toni’s mind. But at the end of his life, he borrowed a big chunk of money in hopes of turning the family home into a bed-and-breakfast–another failed attempt to turn the family legacy into modern currency. Bo and Toni’s real grief over their father has been subsumed by their fixation on whether they can get the money to repay his real-world debts; when Franz shows up unexpectedly, Toni can’t let go of the idea that he’s only there for his inheritance. There’s an obsession with the value of things, with the way the ability to spend money speaks of your self-worth; it’s the bedrock of their self-esteem. And yet the only person in this play who seems to have a job is River, the hippie vegan chef, who Toni sees as a gold-digger. Toni, a former school principal, lost her job after her son’s drug dealing was revealed; Rachael doesn’t seem to work; Bo is about to lose his magazine job; who knows how Franz keeps the light on. Watching the shift over the course of the play from lynching photos as object of revulsion to lynching photos as talisman of value, as object whose aesthetic, political, moral qualities become erased–as it were, appropriated–by their potential to provide economic rescue—that’s what I walk away from Appropriate thinking about.

Loren Noveck

Loren Noveck is a writer, editor, dramaturg, and recovering Off-Off-Broadway producer, who was for many years the literary manager of Six Figures Theatre Company. She has written for The Brooklyn Rail, The Brooklyn Paper, and NYTheater now, and currently writes occasionally for HowlRound and WIT Online. In her non-theatrical life, she works in book publishing.

Review: Appropriate at the Hayes Theater Show Info

Produced by 2nd Stage

Directed by Lila Neugebauer

Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Scenic Design dots; COSTUME DESIGN: Dede Ayite

Lighting Design Jane Cox

Sound Design Bray Poor and Will Pickens

Cast includes Graham Campbell, Lincoln Cohen, Michael Esper, Elle Fanning, Natalie Gold, Alyssa Emily Marvin, Sarah Paulson, Everett Sobers, Corey Stoll

Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 2 hours 45 minutes


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