NEW YORK – Not since Steppenwolf Theater Company’s “August: Osage County” has Broadway produced a spectacle of ensemble acting as exuberant as that seen in director Lila Neugebauer’s fiercely gripping production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ ironically titled play, “Appropriate.” He hadn’t seen it. A quarrelsome, wounded and self-loathing family tearing each other into little pieces over the legacy of their dead ancestors.
Leading lady Sarah Paulson is on fire all night long here, burning not only everyone lucky enough to share Second Stage Theatre’s production with her, but half the gaping audience as well. It’s a sight to behold when the likes of Michael Esper, Corey Stoll, Natalie Gold, Graham Campbell and, yes, Elle Fanning rise to meet it with every ounce of their consciousness.
Few scripts in theater are as rewarding as great actors playing deeply intertwined characters whose tolerance for each other’s manipulations ran out years ago, and that’s exactly what you get here over the course of two hours and 40 minutes.
Believe me, time flies by quickly. You won’t be able to take your eyes off the devastating action for one episode.
Did you see the episode in Hulu’s “The Bear” where a family dinner turns into a battle with forks? It’s no coincidence that Paulson appeared in the deservedly famous episode. And that’s exactly the level of absurdly intense suffering you’ll watch here. It’s only done live and in person and lasts all night.
So what exactly was passed down to this extended Lafayette family? An old plantation house not in the Deep South but in outdated southeastern Arkansas. Property must now be divided among distrustful siblings, a fruitful theme for playwrights from Anton Chekhov to Horton Foote, but everything these characters try to do today is a stratospheric level of collective baggage, a legacy deeply rooted in American racism and antisemitism. is undermined by. and cruelty.
Although revised for this first Broadway production, “Appropriate” is set in 2011; it is about when Jacobs-Jenkins wrote a play that was first developed at the Victory Garden Theater in Chicago. I reviewed it for the first time in Chicago in 2013 and at times struggled to embrace his integrity. Not this time. “Proper,” which I predicted would be an unexpectedly big hit for Phase Two, has aged like moonshine, its bitterness and combativeness now perfectly suited to America’s moment.
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The three siblings here are Toni (Paulson), who does all the family chores and pays the price of personal loneliness and alienation from her son Rhys (Campbell); Self-described victim Franz (Esper), attending an estate sale with his hippie-dippy facilitator girlfriend River (Fanning), is ill-equipped to spend time among cannibals; and sister Bo (Stoll), who has a seemingly normal professional life with wife Rachael (Gold) and several children, one of whom (perfectly played by Alyssa Emily Marvin) sees too much for her own good.
They turn on each other as they discover one terrible thing after another about a dead relative that strikes them with hatred, seemingly unseen.
The appeal here is partly schadenfreude and partly relief that no matter how dysfunctional one’s family is, this crew is worse. Most people know family members who have gotten in too deep to forgive. But Jacobs-Jenkins was also writing about America itself, arguing that even white people paid a generational price for the vestigial Confederacy and the moral decay of slavery.
There is also compassion as everyone tries to find their way out of this toxic room designed with hidden fears by the collective known as Design by Dots. Any door or window that looks out into reality and your role in it will do, as long as it is not marked.
at the Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th St., New York; 2st.com
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.