Dysfunction Dulls Rather Than Disturbs in Appropriate

Elizabeth Marshall Black, Carolyn Richard,  Brock Huerter, Malinda L. Beckham, Jeff Featherston, Christian Tannous and Skyler Sinclair in Appropriate.
Elizabeth Marshall Black, Carolyn Richard, Brock Huerter, Malinda L. Beckham, Jeff Featherston, Christian Tannous and Skyler Sinclair in Appropriate. Photo by Gary Griffin
If you’re going to foist dysfunction on a family, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has certainly showered the Lafayette clan with the motherload in his 2014 play, Appropriate, now onstage at Dirt Dogs.

Set in a junk-strewn two-story Arkansas plantation house (another handsome set by Mark Lewis), the Lafayette siblings, Toni (Malinda L. Beckham), Bo (Jeff Featherston) and Franz (Christian Tannous) reconvene weeks after their father’s funeral to deal with the liquidation of the in-debt estate and the hoarding mess their father left.

And they aren’t alone. Adding to the clean-up crew are Toni's teenage son Rhys (Brock Huerter), Bo’s wife Rachel (Elizabeth Marshall Black), their two children, Cassidy (Carolyn Richards) and Ainsely (Michael Hellman) and Franz’s fiancée, River (Skyler Sinclair).

That much family in a room during a time of post-death stress, and you know it's not going to go well. Especially when they discover a book of unforgivably violent historical racist photographs that force them to rethink everything they thought they knew about their patriarch. And then wonder if that sordid past could be monetized to their advantage.

But wait, that’s not it. As if that wasn’t enough disturbing drama, Jacobs-Jenkins throws a bowl of affliction spaghetti at these folks.

In their two days together, we find out that these folks must also tackle drug and alcohol addiction, pedophilia, financial troubles, divorce, potential incest, troubling porn preferences, pregnancies and the willingness to beat the crap out of each other.

It could have all been thrilling, like an August Osage County on steroids. Or a deep examination of how a family’s shame represses, manifests and repeats/evolves generationally. Instead, it suffers from the worst theater sin possible, the absolute lack of tension.

It’s embarrassing to say that the discovery of horrific racism, callous financial greed, creepy sexual encounters, violence, etc. doesn't cause us any discomfort. We want to feel something here. We want to be disgusted or angry or feel like there's a stake in any of this.

And it’s hard to truly parse where exactly the lack of energy comes from.

Part of the issue lies with the writing itself. Jacobs-Jenkins is well known for putting his characters in uncomfortable positions and forcing them to learn about their truest ugly selves. He’s also a master of violence as a somewhat casual inevitability. We saw this done brilliantly in 4th Wall’s production of Gloria, Jacob-Jenkin’s 2016 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

But while Gloria gave us shock, aftermath and insight, Appropriate, for all its salaciousness, feels like there's no there's no air in the tires. it's a lot of a lot, yet none of it has teeth. And at almost a 3-hour run time – it’s far too long for us to be wondering when the payoff is coming.

The other issue lies with the production.

For much of the show, it felt as though Director Ron Jones couldn't get his cast to move fluidly together or reach the heightened emotions the script called for. In one instance, Toni spews Anti-Semitic jargon at Rachel as the sisters-in-law fight. “Jew, Shylock, Kike” Toni says when baited.

Rather than wince, we shrug, it was such a tensionless nothing burger of an exchange. If we don’t care about this, how are we to care about any of it?

Unfortunately, it isn’t just this scene where Beckham, a talent we’ve enjoyed immensely in the past, doesn’t quite deliver. On a positive note, she’s chosen to play eldest sister Toni not as a hysterical bully sister. There are no over-the-top outbursts and it’s a brave choice worthy of our respect. Yet in her restraint, she comes across as somewhat robotic, sapping the much-needed thrum the play needs to keep us engaged.

As Bo, Featherston fares fine in the meat of the show but does nothing to earn his eventual emotional breakdown.

Whatever weird sexual tension was supposed to be felt between cousins Rys and Cassidy, was amiably attempted but ultimately lost by Huerter and Richards.

It’s only Tannous as Franz and Sinclair as River that bring the juice. Franz as a twitchy, self-doubting, screwup of a man trying to shed his troubling past gets gorgeous physicality from Tannous who steals every scene he's in. Sinclair breathes exquisite hippie life into River’s philosophy of letting your feeling flag fly.

So, in the end, what is Appropriate? It's a family drama. It's an examination of grappling with past misdeeds/secrets. It’s a clinical look at a small part of the racial ecosystem. It’s an allegory for how trauma is rationalized and repackaged.

It certainly sounds good on paper. But theories don’t make great scripts and intentions can’t bolster a production with limp conflict. Unfortunately, Appropriate’s dysfunction dulls instead of disturbs.

Appropriate continues through June 8 at MATCH, 3400 Main. For more information, call 713.521.4533 or visit $30 with pay-what-you-can tickets available for matinees and the Monday, May 27, performance.
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman