Theater Review: A Family Fights With The Past And Themselves In Trinity Rep's 'Appropriate'

Oct 13, 2016

“Appropriate” is both brilliant and bitter, overdone and incisive. At times, it seems to be right on, an American original, both hilarious and heartbreaking. Other times it has you asking just what are these people on stage doing, for heaven’s sake?

For two hours forty-five minutes (including two intermissions) it is a play of rage and regret, of lives ruined, hope gone.

But. It's also a comedy, believe it or not, hilarious, laughing out loud funny amid all the tears, all the heartbreak. “Un-Appropriate” could just as easily be the title of this very much All-American play.

Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, a young, hugely talented Afro-American artist, it looks into -- pries into, really – a frenzied family coping with the death of the family's patriarch, its master and marauder.

They are all gathered at the family's ancestral home in Arkansas. Once an elegant Southern artifact, it is now a crumbling dump, falling apart almost as fast as is the family.

Author Jacobs-Jenkins has chosen to write about a white family. But, clearly, he is interpreting another view of that American conflict of race, and racism.

How, you say?  Well, I won't tell you – can't really – about the explosive time bomb that waits for all in this play. Suffice to say, it's scary, awful, true and real, in this “comedy.”

At Trinity, director Brian Mertes, who heads the Brown-Trinity directing program, has gone all out, giving his actors all the chance in the world to emote, to feel, to be real. On a wildly cranky set by designer Sara Brown they scourge and laugh and cry. Family secrets are exposed and then lost, and then brought back again.

There are three siblings in the Lafayette family, all troubled, all needy. Collectively they are a mistake you'd love to see healed.

Phyllis Kay is Antoinette who is called Toni. But by either name she is marvelous. She's a woman both feared and fearful. One moment she's a multi-nasty, ever scheming matriarch. The next, she's a sniveling loser lost in southern un-comfort. It's a performance only a top-rated actor could give.

Fred Sullivan Jr. is her brother Beauregarde Lafayette called “Bo” who hates her when he doesn't need her desperately in a performance both loud and lost.

Others, Angela Brazil, as the detested Jew from New York, and Mauro Hantman as the third sibling, a man goofy and lost, are all just fine, as is the entire cast for that matter.

Now, with all this said, “Appropriate” is, in truth, a little long, a little overdone. At times it's hard to hear everyone because, for some reason, actors spend time with their back to the audience, a la theater-in-the-round.

But those are small complaints. Overall, “Appropriate” is just that; a play and production reaching out to the best of American insightful on-stage views.

It has the feel of the real even though so much is theatrical; so much is hard to take.  Even as you're laughing you’re looking for a way to avoid the downfall of the Lafayette family. After all, you’re aware you’re seeing what's real, what could be you.

“Appropriate” continues at Trinity Rep through November 6th. Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for Rhode Island Public Radio.