THEATER REVIEW: “Appropriate” @ Albany Civic Theater [Berkshire on Stage]

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Review by Gail M. Burns

Is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Obie-winning Appropriate just another play about a dysfunctional family, with siblings fighting for their share of the estate after the recent death of their father? Or is there something darker and more significant behind its vitriol?

A glance at the program provided by the Albany Civic Theater gives us clues: the play’s title can be used both as an adjective (“suitable or fitting for a particular purpose, person, occasion”) or a verb: (“to take possession of,” to steal, to seize). Indeed the playwright admits, in a 2014 interview with Mark Guiducci in Vogue, that he “stole” from other family dramas (such as August: Osage County) to create Appropriate, which played at the Signature Theatre Company that year. But Jacob-Jenkins adds, “I also knew that my being black would automatically make anything I ever write be about race.” The program describes the set as “the living room of a former plantation home in Southeast Arkansas,” and it takes only a few moments for us to learn that there are slaves buried in graveyards next to the house. An old photograph album of “dead black people,” apparently lynch victims, figures prominently in the plot.

The play follows the hostilities, both verbal and physical, of three siblings: Toni (Jessica [J.J.] Paul), the eldest, executrix of her father’s estate, Bo (Matthew Side), her wealthy New York brother, and Frank (or Franz) [Jude Washock], the youngest, who has not been seen for ten years. In the course of their various confrontations, each is given an opportunity to bemoan the misery they suffered and to lay claim to their inheritance. At times a black comedy, at others deadly serious, this over-the-top free-for-all can be exhausting for the audience as well as the actors, a visual and auditory embodiment of the second act title: “Walpurgisnacht.” Paul’s shrill delivery makes it difficult to sympathize with her, despite her grief at losing her father and her insecurity as a mother. Side’s quieter suffering finally does move us toward the end of the play, and Washock’s journey is depicted effectively, as the one-time alcoholic, drug-addicted pedophile seeks to rejoin the family. His transformation is accomplished with the help of his shaman-loving, reiki-practicing girlfriend, River (Tara Dedie, whose performance sharpens as the play progresses.)

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