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February 1, 2024
Family Ties and Hidden Secrets
Photo by Joan Marcus

Every family has its baggage but the Layayette family seems to have more than most. Secrets, resentment, and anger all surface with the death of the patriarch of the family as the three siblings, Toni, Beau and Frank, converge over a long weekend in the family home in Arkansas to settle the estate. “Appropriate” by playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, begins with the multiple definitions of the title. The duality becomes more evident as the play progresses at the Helen Hayes Theater. As they clean out the family plantation, they sift through possessions and also memories.

Cicadas, the insects that stay underground for 13 years before emerging and covering the trees, screech loudly and jarringly during the blackouts between the earthly scenes Lila Neugebauer’s direction keeps the audience alert and watchful throughout the play.

The father’s home is filled with books and memorabilia, including a shocking photo album of dead black people, who had apparently been lynched. (Is it merely a collector's item or did he play a role?) The children also find jars with what look like body parts; were they souvenirs? Later these discoveries send shock waves through the siblings who already are at odds with one another. Who was their father? A true Southern gentleman who almost became a judge, a man in mourning for his departed wife, or a bigot? All versions of him are fascinating (and spoiler alert: never totally resolved.) However, it’s the three siblings who interest us: their interactions past and present.

The eldest of the three, Toni, passionately portrayed by Sarah Paulson, is an angry woman. She emerges already hostile and resentful. Most of her remarks are barbed, vicious and sarcastic, especially when the youngest brother Frank (Michael Esper) appears. He hasn't been heard from in 10 years, wasn't at his father’s funeral and now arrives with River, a much younger ‘flower child-like’ young woman (Elle Fanning) by his side. Toni is convinced that they are only there for Frank's share of the estate.

Although based upon a mortgage and past expenses, there doesn't appear to be much of an estate to share. Beau, the middle brother, (Corey Stoll) accompanied by his wife Rachel (Natalie Gold) and two children, has arrived, hoping to recoup some of the money he laid out over the past for the plantation. There’s no softness in Toni, except when she turns to her teenage son Rhys, a ‘screw up,’ asking for a hug. Slim and slender, Paulson looks slight but her power comes from Toni’s anger, and she’s a force to be reckoned with and avoided.

Paulson’s character seems over the top sometimes, bitter, and furious and she takes out much of her hostilities on her sister-in-law Rachel who thinks their father was anti-semitic and on River, Frank’s naive girlfriend. Toni grows belligerent at the possibility that her beloved father was bigoted and the women are at odds throughout the play. (Fight crew credited in the Playbill - Unkledave”s Fight-House)

In comparison, Beau is a placid, stolid character, evincing little emotion and yet not a peacemaker. Only at the very end, does he show much emotion. Frank is a former drunk and addict and claims that he’s come to ask for forgiveness. Some of Esper’s speeches seem long winded.

The second act goes on too long and, quite frankly, I thought the play had ended several times before it actually did. Yet, each time, it drew the audience back.

Set on a run-down plantation, (wonderful scenic design by dots,) the house emits its own vibes with a slave graveyard nearby. River claims to feel spirits. When all the human characters depart, the house has its own final moments. There’s history, hurt and pain and the house reflects all the turmoil.

Hayes Theater
240 West 44th Street
New York, NY 10036

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Written by: Elyse Trevers
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