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Photograph: Joan Marcus
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Photograph: Joan Marcus
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Photograph: Joan Marcus
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Photograph: Joan Marcus
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Photograph: Joan Marcus
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Photograph: Joan Marcus
Appropriate
Pershing Square Signature Center, Hell's Kitchen Sunday April 13 2014 19:30

Appropriate. Pershing Square Signature Center (see Off Broadway). By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Directed by Liesl Tommy. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 20mins. One intermission.

Appropriate: In brief

In a new drama by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, one of Signature's "Residency Five" playwrights, scattered members of an estranged Arkansas family return to their late patriarch's plantation to sort through the detritus and suppressed stories of multiple generations. Liesl Tommy directs the bargain-priced New York premiere.

Appropriate: Theater review by David Cote

What’s the hottest trend among the avant-garde progeny of Mac Wellman and Paula Vogel? These days, America’s playwright-provocateurs are into what can only be termed dramaturgical normcore: dressing square in the well-made, dysfunctional-domestic play. Lisa D’Amour, previously known for her poetic excursions into weirdness and beauty, turned a sympathetic-sardonic eye on the Great Recession and suburbia in 2010’s Detroit. On Facebook, subversive auteur Young Jean Lee has been crowdsourcing material for a living-room drama tentatively called Straight White Men. Now comes Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Neighbors, An Octoroon), with a racialized, faintly mocking riff on the Dark Family Secrets genre so well defined by Albee, Shepard and, more recently, Tracy Letts. In fact, Appropriate feels like it was written in an ironic snit after the African-American scribe caught August: Osage County and Clybourne Park on a two-show day.

In Appropriate, three white adult siblings (Johanna Day, Michael Laurence and Patch Darragh) return to their childhood home in rural Arkansas after their father’s death. Amid his piles of junk they find a photograph album of lynched black Southerners. This hateful discovery catalyzes a contrived exposé of attitudes toward their legacy and resentment toward one another. Each is damaged by the past in some way, haunted by ghosts both recent (the mysterious absent patriarch) and much older (the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow). It’s potentially rich material, but the young Jacobs-Jenkins can’t write character or dialogue as well as the sources he’s synthesizing (it's a fine line between intertextual and derivative). By design or default, these are tedious and grating characters—despite a talented cast and Liesl Tommy’s straight-faced direction. You keep waiting for the narrative or aesthetic strategy to twist into something truly novel or perverse. It never does. The old house suffers damage, but it really ought to be demolished.—Theater review by David Cote

THE BOTTOM LINE This family isn’t dysfunctional enough.

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote

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Venue name: Pershing Square Signature Center
Contact:
Address: 480 W 42nd St
New York
10036
Cross street: at Tenth Ave
Transport: Subway: A, C, E to 42nd St–Port Authority
Price: $25