Sunday, August 20, 2017

Appropriating the Past

Appropriate -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Through September 2

    Shawn Fagan, Diane Davis, Nick Selting, Betsy Aidem,
and David Aaron Baker. Photo by Carol Rosegg

There are some who say the most difficult thing about writing a play is knowing how to end it. In the case of Appropriate, which recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse, the problems also encompass how to start the play. So what we have is some head scratching during the first moments of the play, followed by some truly engaging theater and some fine acting, until we get to the closing moments when, once again, the dandruff starts to fall as you scratch away and say, “Well, okay…so what?”

Deftly directed by David Kennedy (save for the opening and closing moments – and it’s up for grabs as to who is responsible for these moments), this excursion into family history written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is tinged with just a touch of gothic overtones and includes some skeletons in the closet (or photo album or graveyard – take your pick) as a somewhat dysfunctional family (is there any other kind?) gathers at the decrepit family mansion to prepare it to be sold and its contents auctioned off.

The pater familias has recently died, leaving the mansion, a decrepit hulk bulging with junk (the whole scene nicely created by scenic designer Andrew Boyce) weighed down by debt. The family gathers to deal with what has been left behind: embittered sister, Toni (a gripping Betsy Aidem), a brother, Bo (David Aaron Baker), a corporate executive worried about downsizing, and the black-sheep brother, Franz (aka Frank – Shawn Fagan). In tow are various children and significant others: there’s Toni’s recalcitrant son Rhys (Nick Selting), Bo’s wife, Rachel (Diane Davis) and their two children, Ainsley (Christian Michael Camporin) and Cassie (Allison Winn), and finally River (an engaging Anna Crivelli), Franz’s earth-mother girl friend.

Once the clan is gathered there is initial friction dealing with who actually gave up the most in caring for dear old Dad in his declining years, but the arguments soon escalate with the discovery of a photo album that apparently contains pictures of lynchings. Was Dad a racist? Rachel reveals a telephone conversation she overheard, with her father-in-law referring to her as the “Jew wife.” Was Dad an anti-Semite?

There’s more kindling thrown on the fire to bring the pot to a boil, mainly dealing with Franz’s addictions and child molestation (I told you the family was dysfunctional). Denials, accusations and recriminations tumble over each other in crisp, acerbic dialogue that Kennedy allows to be bitten into by the actors, giving the confrontations a realistic rhythm – after all, when you’re arguing do you really let the other person finish what they have to say before attacking?

A nice touch of irony is added by Jacobs-Jenkins when the bickering family learns that the lynching photographs may have significant historical (or collectors) value. In other words, they can make a lot of money off pictures of black men who have been lynched. This leads to a battle-royal (deftly set up by fight director Michael Rossmy) that is ended in a dramatic appearance that drew appreciative gasps from the opening night audience. Sometimes (cliché warning!), a picture is worth a thousand words (of dialogue), and in this case it might just have made a provocative ending to the play.

The major questions about Dad are left for the audience to decide, but there’s no doubt that this family has, by the final curtain, been deconstructed. There are moments over the course of the two-plus hours that are painful, others that are revelatory, and the actors allow their characters to dig, slice and dice each other with abandon.

So, the problems with the opening and closing moments? Well, there’s an operative audio metaphor that is established when the lights first go down: it’s the irritating rasping (desperate mating calls) of cicadas. We, the audience, hear them, and get the message, but the lights don’t go up. The cicadas continue to rasp and twitter – the volume rises and falls and then rises again, evoking some chuckles from the audience in the darkened theater. We will again hear the offending mating calls every time there’s a scene change (consider it a scene-in-one delivered by insects).

Okay, so a little too much chirping before the play gets started, but what’s wrong with the final moments? More cicadas going berserk? No. It’s now the moment for Boyce, as well as lighting designer Matthew Richards, sound designer Fitz Patton and props master Alison Mantilla to take center stage for a series of quick vignettes that depict the physical dissolution of the mansion (of the family??) The effects are impressive, but they seem extremely beside the point – it’s a series of, well, okay, here’s what we can do with the set – like that? (blackout) – this is also what we can do (blackout) – okay, we can also do this. Has the destruction been caused by ghosts or Mother Nature? Your guess is as good as mine.

In the final moments of dialogue the actors have deftly established disruption, dissolution and, in the end, despair. What follows visually is simply overkill.

Appropriate, though it runs a bit long, is often gripping, intense theater marred by production values that call too much attention to themselves. The show runs through September 2. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to

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