There’s so much to look at on Signature Theatre stage during Appropriate, yet so many of the play’s major drivers remain totally unseen. The awe-inspiring Southern Gothic set — designed by Clint Ramos — is a cavernous former plantation in Arkansas, complete with towering but porous ceilings, a disintegrating grand staircase, and heaps of junk stacking all over the musty furniture. The play, written by the prodigiously gifted 28-year-old playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, is a primarily a family drama rooted firmly in reality, but the ominous setting lends it the look of a horror show or ghost story — which, in some ways, it is.
The decrepit home belonged to the recently deceased patriarch of the Lafayette family, and following the wake, the far-flung surviving members of his clan descend upon the place to whip it into shape and settle the old man’s accounts. But like Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, the impromptu reunion turns into a war zone of longtime resentments. The eldest child, Toni (Johanna Day), is the most combative, a recently divorced mom who arrives with her delinquent teenage son, Rhys (Mike Faist). The middle sibling, Bo (Michael Laurence, looking exactly like a yuppified, lantern-jawed John Hawke), makes a long-delayed homecoming from New York with his type-A Jewish wife, Rachael (Maddie Corman), tween daughter, Cassidy (Izzy Hanson-Johnston), and young son, Ainsley (Alex Dreier), in tow. Less expected is the youngest and black sheep of the family, Franz (Patch Darragh), who comes from Portlandia with his much, much younger hippie girlfriend, River (Sonya Harum) — and draws the ire and judgment of Toni.
The squabbles begin almost immediately, over some of the usual issues — who put in the most care but received the least love, who should have been more vigilant about the dwindling estate, who was most deeply traumatized by their upbringing. But the discord takes a more poisonous turn when a photo album of mutilated black lynching victims turns up amid the dead man’s detritus. The siblings argue about what the photos mean: Was their father a bigot or merely a hobbyist, a collector of Jim Crowe-era artifacts? But the symbol of the family’s ancestral racism affects the living like an evil talisman, drawing out the worst of their greed, self delusion, and cruelty.
The verbal artillery the Lafayettes hurl at each other is often jarring, but the show stops just short of over-indulgence. Jacobs-Jenkins, an African American writer who effortlessly and believably taps into a white family’s dysfunction, infuses the script with unforced, viperish humor. The play clocks in at over two hours, but thanks to the writing and tight direction by Liesl Tommy, it speeds along, with most of the shocking and rewarding moments coming deep in the second act. Appropriate is an uncommonly deft dramatic and technical achievement and perhaps a star-making production for Jacobs-Jenkins. A–
(Tickets: 212-244-7529, signaturetheatre.org)