Last summer was filled with headlines touting the arrival of “Brood X,” which wasn’t a post-millennium Cronenberg reboot, but the name given to a trillion cicadas poised to join the world after more than a decade underground. For countless reasons, it seemed right: in a moment of general upheaval, why not dig up some creepy bugs?
Appropriate, who opened May 7 at the Imago Theater in a Profile Theater production, dredges its own creepy bugs, including cicadas. The show begins in prolonged darkness, as the menacing, musical hissing of insects escalates throughout the auditorium. It is deep night. We are not alone. And something unsightly is ready to emerge from the depths.
That something, at first, turns out to be Franz (Tyler Caffall), the black sheep of the Lafayette family, and his handsome young granola River (Elizabeth Rees). They broke into Franz’s childhood home, a large, faded Arkansas plantation with sickly green walls, on the eve of an auction that will settle his late father’s estate.
It soon becomes clear that Franz is not often home. Instead, family matters fall mostly to his older sister Toni (a fire-breathing Linda Hayden), recently divorced and freshly fired from her job as vice principal, thanks to her delinquent son (Colin Kane). Also in the mix is Bo (a star-stealing Gavin Hoffman), the stoic, people-loving middle child who has retired to start his own upper-middle-class family in New York City. The siblings and their acolytes, reunited in an unfortunate circumstance, are forced to live together in their ancestral home while preparing to abandon it forever.
If you’re already cataloging potential conflicts — class resentments, old rivalries, and big questions about what parents pass on to their children — you’re well on your way. Appropriate is deliberately inspired by the great American living room pieces of the last century: pieces of August: Osage County, buried childand Long day trip into night ricochet around the stage, recalibrated for freshness but still very recognizable. Which makes Appropriate unique (and extraordinary), however, is the way it manages to contextualize these fragments of its dramatic ancestry without diluting their power.
As the action begins, Bo’s young son (Nico Spaulding) comes across a photo album containing gruesome images that remind us – and the Lafayette– that the series’ interpersonal dramas take place on the grounds of a former plantation. Responses to the album differ. Toni refuses to believe that something so vile could have belonged to her father; Bo’s wife, Rachael (Sarah Fay Goldman, who serves Andie MacDowell throughout) wants to make it a teaching moment. But above all, the characters push the discovery down and move forward with their own squabbles. They don’t know what to do with it.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins does. An award-winning black playwright known for tackling provocative subject matter in plays like Gloria and an octoroon, Appropriate is the only work by Jacobs-Jenkins written explicitly for an all-white cast. He has a keen ear for how contemporary white Americans stumble in conversations about race, and he regularly stirs up the already turbulent waters of the room by returning to the photo album and referencing a graveyard full of slaves. on the Lafayette property. Appropriate’The surface story of siblings grappling with their past, very compelling on its own, is therefore regularly haunted by the moral rot of its setting, which was much uglier much more recently than anyone on stage would care to admit.
The show never pretends, as a lesser show might be tempted to do, that one force should completely overrule the other. Jacobs-Jenkins understands the fallacy of the zero-sum game and maintains a staggering empathy for each of his characters – anti-Semites, racism apologists, and sex offenders among them – even as he makes no excuses for them. But he also knows how corrosive untreated trauma is, however distant it may seem. Rather than resorting to smugness, it simply presents the funny and murderous story of a family learning to live with themselves, then retreats into the cognitive dissonance of trying – and then refusing –to reconcile this process with 400 years of institutionalized evil.
It could be a woozy mix. In his hands, it’s really piercing.
Luckily, Profile’s creative team is equipped for the balancing act. Director Jerry Ruiz keeps things going, never letting the pacing slow for what could be a long two and a half hours. It maintains a poignant comedy tone throughout and makes room for something scarier if needed. Profile production gets it Appropriate is basically a ghost story, and it also understands how fun it can be to watch an angry family yell at each other.
Ruiz never leaves anyone in the cast tumbles into caricature, instead helping their actors locate the pain centers from which all of their characters operate. As Bo, Hoffman is perfect: exasperated, softer than you think, and so desperate to maintain the illusion of peace that he becomes pathetic without ever becoming totally despicable. (Her precocious, dismissive pronunciation of “Oregon” on the East Coast as “Ore-gone” literally had my fist pumping.) Hayden’s Toni is the most cheeky and showy role, and she brings laughs and pathos. of almost every scene. (Teenagers, however, it must be said, often scan more like graduate students.)
The decor – constantly messy and revealing – was expertly designed by Inseung Park, and is even After skilfully exploited by Ruiz, who turns it into a battlefield. He frequently positions warring figures on opposite sides of the living room sofa like MMA fighters, and takes full advantage of the depth of the scene, dropping sight gags from the back and creating a few tableaux that hint at the own layering. by Jacobs-Jenkins.
And the costumes, by Jaymee Ngernwichit, are deviously brilliant. Contemporary theatrical attire can sometimes feel like an afterthought, with actors wearing more or less what they might find in their closet at home; in the hands of Ngerwichit, every garment counts. Consider Bo’s Westchester Dad zip cardigan, or Rachael’s Ann Taylor cardigans, or Portlandness of River’s a little too loud outfits for the vegan chef who believes in spirits. These are people who crave to be seen in a special light, and they put that effort clearly on their bodies.
The evening ends with the same cicadas that greeted us. At that time, we heard a young character marvel at the mythical life cycle of insects: emerge, sing, mate, die. We have also seen a family split up, reunite halfheartedly, and believe they have achieved enlightenment, even though we know they have not. As with everything about it, Appropriate isn’t particularly prescriptive about what cicadas mean, but their music hits our ears differently when the lights come on. Is it an indictment? A threat? A reminder of the ugliness that buzzes beneath our own feet?
One thing is certain: we leave knowing something that we did not know and hoping to be able to identify exactly what it is as soon as possible.
7:30 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday to May 22, Imago Theater, $35 to $55