Theater archives

Appropriate’s Heavy Subject Matter Suffers Tonal Diffidence


The floors don’t creak in the decrepit Arkansas plantation hosting Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate at the Signature. Lights don’t flicker, doors don’t slam, nothing goes bump in the night. Yet this house is definitely haunted — by what one character calls our country’s “shitty history.” The Lafayette clan has gathered here to auction off the worldly goods of its dead patriarch. But as they inventory ratty blankets and broken lamps, they discover some far more disturbing artifacts.

Jacobs-Jenkins writes in a fluid naturalism that seems to want to break into something grander, though only the play’s beginning and ending veer toward the symbolic. (His earlier play, Neighbors, had this same tonal diffidence.) His characters speak vivid, self-aware dialogue as when Bo (a skillful Michael Laurence) describes his relations as “misfit disaster people” or his wife (Maddie Corman) asks, “Can we sit around being casually dysfunctional later?”

While the script wouldn’t benefit from a more direct swing at its subjects (slavery, inheritance, indifference), it does call out for a more substantial kind of reckoning. A climactic melee doesn’t provide it as Liesl Tommy, though a nuanced director, too often trades messy horror for clean comedy. A story so full of ghosts should give us a real scare.