When it comes to fruit from a poisoned tree, the biliously funny “Appropriate” displays it by the bushel. Young playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins dreams up a nasty extended family that has nothing, apparently, on the dead patriarch whose plantation home the, er, clan descends upon to settle the old man’s estate with his debtors.
What hideous thing they discover about dear old Pa — or at least think they have found — is the crux of this cantankerous comedy-drama, which is played to the caustic hilt at Woolly Mammoth Theatre by an eight-member cast, and especially, by Deborah Hazlett, David Bishins and Tim Getman. They portray a trio of grown siblings with more issues to sort through than do a phalanx of workers at a newspaper recycling plant.
Borrowing a page — or is it a chapter? — from Tracy Letts’s no-holds-barred domestic dramedy, “August: Osage County,” Jacobs-Jenkins constructs the profile of a family inexorably drawn into a bitter confrontation with its past. Intimations of rape, pedophilia, alcoholism and anti-Semitism rise up, as if toxicity leaches naturally out of the rotting walls and piles of junk arranged on Clint Ramos’s smashing, Southern Gothic horror show of a set.
Racism, too, of the vilest sort makes an appearance, courtesy of what’s found in that roomful of trash, a revelation that sets up the evening’s most inspired moment, one that brilliantly confirms the Lafayette family’s bleakest suspicions and identifies Jacobs-Jenkins as a witty provocateur and a dramatist on whom to keep your eye.
That he also happens to be an African American dramatist, probing the psychodynamics of a white American family, is a point of added interest, so much so that Woolly Mammoth felt the need to address the question of authenticity in the program. “Are the Lafayettes any less believable because they don’t overtly resemble their author?” Kirsten Bowen, the play’s dramaturg, or literary adviser, asks.
The answer is no. Jacobs-Jenkins’s well-conceived Lafayettes are stock characters out of what has become our universal theatrical heritage: the family destroyed by secrets. In this sense, “Appropriate” retraces highly familiar turf, not much of a departure from some of the themes explored in, for instance, Paul Downs Colaizzo’s confessional tragicomedy at Signature Theatre, “Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill,” and heaps of other American plays down the decades.
But Jacobs-Jenkins manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of caricature, which was not always the case in Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winner. What distinguishes this new entry is the playwright’s gift for drawing his characters into an escalating conflict and sustaining, with humor and craft, our curiosity about how they digest the terrible information thrown at them. He takes us in “Appropriate” to this shambles of an estate somewhere in Arkansas — not far from the big old house in Letts’s Osage County, Okla. — where the far-flung Lafayette siblings have gathered with their various spouses, kids and fiancées.
This is a brood skilled in the art of combat. Bishins’s Bo arrives from New York City with his Jewish wife, Rachael (Beth Hylton) and their two children; Getman’s Franz turns up from Oregon with his New Age girlfriend River (Caitlin McColl), and Hazlett’s recently divorced Toni is in from Atlanta, with her troubled teenage son Rhys (Josh Adams). Stoked by grudges new and ancient, they are ready to rumble.
The problem at hand is getting rid of the house and all of its contents. Among Papa Lafayette’s legacies is a squandered half-million-dollar loan to turn the plantation into a bed-and-breakfast. But the more unsettling bequest comes in the form of a photo album filled with evidence of the family’s ties to the ugliest aspects of Southern history.
What bacteria from that shameful time infect the Lafayettes, have pursued them to the more enlightened enclaves in which they have grown up or hidden themselves? Knowing the family springs from a black man’s imagination heightens the drama: The reckoning for the evils of the past is not done in a day — or even a century, it seems. That he evokes these people so believably activates one of the possible meanings of the title. Jacobs-Jenkins appropriates, makes his own, a story of white America, and this presages a more hopeful time when the ethnic identity of a playwright might not prompt a mention.
Director Liesl Tommy sets the right rhythm and tone for her production, which is expertly adorned by the costumes of Kathleen Geldard and illuminated with panache by Colin K. Bills. His lighting design seeps ominously through the cracks in the walls and glows behind windows caked with dirt. The director has particular success in her collaboration with Hazlett, who, as the oldest sibling, exudes a vulnerable side along with a venomous one. Watching Hazlett sit, seethe and skewer the others is a mini-drama unto itself. It’s easy to grasp why her resentful son, played by Adams with just the right degree of adolescent sullenness, would grow up confused, angry and needy.
Bishins and Hazlett convey such a convincing dynamic of brother-sister rivalry and mutual contempt — a standoff encouraged by Hylton’s splendid, hair-trigger Rachael — that you can envision them back in their highchairs, coveting each other’s teething rings. Tommy also guides McColl and Maya Brettell to rewardingly natural portraits of, respectively, a naive girlfriend who’s still more adult than the other grown-ups, and a precocious teen who believes she already is one.
Although Tommy hasn’t solved all of the play’s transition problems, especially the uncertain development of the final moments of Act 1, the spine of the piece holds together firmly. It’s a production that confidently asserts: War may be hell, but family war can be fun.
by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Directed by Liesl Tommy. Set, Clint Ramos; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lighting, Colin K. Bills; original music and sound, Broken Chord; fight choreography, Joe Isenberg. With Cole Edelstein, alternating with Eli Schulman. About two hours and 15 minutes. Tickets, $45-$72.50.Through Dec. 1 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939. www.woollymammoth.net.