2020 will mark 10 years since playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s debut Neighbors. Since then, Jacobs-Jenkins has made his mark skewering the private and public politics of modern U.S. life, making it all the way to the shortlist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his most recent play Everybody. So it was with no small amount of anticipation that I headed back to one of my favourite theatres – the Donmar Warehouse – to see their take on Jacobs-Jenkins 2014 play Appropriate.
This play has all the hallmarks of being a classic American Family Drama. The Lafayette family gathers on the estate in the wake of their patriarch’s death: surely, their long-simmering tensions and ancient regrets will come to the surface.
And they do!
Jacobs-Jenkins update on the formula sees three siblings, their partners and children raking over the remains of an Arkansan plantation. The tensions – between races and generations – play out neatly in this microcosm, where everything is haunted by some version of the past.
How do we interpret the actions of past generations? Is it “fair” to hold our forebears to modern standards? Should we be understanding – can we “understand” without condoning? Is it even possible to move on from the past as long as there are people there to remember it?
These are all interesting, universal themes and they provide a rich seam of drama to be mined. There’s no hint of familial niceties; from the play’s second scene, Monica Dolan’s older sister Toni is at 11. This family’s dysfunction and the frustrations of everyone in it are all at the surface, not below it.
There’s wit and snark along the way, powered by the electric performances of Dolan and Edward Hogg’s manic turn as Frank, but it’s notable that the smaller roles, which could so easily slip into cliché do not: Jaimi Barbakoff manages to keep sister-in-law Rachel from being merely entitled or shrill, and Tafline Steen’s River/Trisha might be little more than a bundle of new-age stereotypes, but in this production she feels lived in.
But there’s no one alive who’s held me. There’s no one left in this family who might have told me about the whole me.Toni
As always, the Donmar Warehouse itself plays a huge role in the success of the production. The broad thrust stage with shallow seating is perfect for a drama, made all the more crowded by the settings hoarded set decoration.
Every production at the Donmar is rewarding, and this is no different. If you have the opportunity to make it down to Seven Dials this production will run in all its familial dysfunction until the 5th of October.