From Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" to Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," the acrimonious homecoming, in which old wounds are reopened and grief and greed are stirred into a toxic cocktail, has been a staple of the American theater.
Personal history, manifested in the twisted psychology of family members, is typically the focus of these works. The house may symbolize some aspect of America and its elusive dream, but broader national concerns (racial politics, for example) are usually relegated to the margins.
"Appropriate," Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' highly charged and ambitiously sprawling drama that opened on Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum, adheres to this basic model. A sad and angry white family has gathered at the ancestral homestead in Arkansas to dispose of a debt-burdened estate.
But the history that has been banished to the periphery is more restive than usual. The unmarked slave cemetery on the property, overlooked by family members during annual summer visits, begins to haunt them after a photo album containing pictures and postcards of lynchings is discovered.
Jacobs-Jenkins, a talented young African American playwright, won a joint Obie Award for "Appropriate" and "An Octoroon," his postmodern riposte to Dion Boucicault's antebellum melodrama, "The Octoroon." "Appropriate" is more conventional in its dramaturgy, yet the author finds opportunities to startle us just as we're settling back to enjoy the familiar spectacle of flamboyant family dysfunction.
Toni (Melora Hardin), the bitterly divorced eldest sibling, has arrived with her alienated son, Rhys (Will Tranfo), and a big old chip on her shoulder. As the executor of her father's will, she controls the decision-making, a power she has no intention of ceding to her brother Bo (David Bishins), who has brought his wife, Rachael (Missy Yager), two children and a load of business worries.
The surprise visitor is Franz (Robert Beitzel), Toni and Bo's estranged brother (formerly known as Frank) who vanished from the family after a long battle with alcohol and drugs, to say nothing of the sexual misdeeds that he's trying to put behind him. Now living in Oregon and studiously committed to his recovery, Franz has brought his girlfriend, River (Zarah Mahler), a New Age hippy certified in Reiki therapy and never at a loss for empathetic words.
Toni greets these uninvited guests the way cable TV haranguer and host Nancy Grace might greet a convicted sex offender. Toni combines the vicious tongue of Violet Weston from "August: Osage County" with the pugnacious defense of Violet's daughter Barbara. Her I-care-but-just-barely dye-job and clothes (by costume designer Laura Bauer) somehow sharpens her rancor.
Hardin is so convincing in this abrasive role that it becomes a strain at points to watch Toni tear down whoever happens to be trying to make peace with her. Jacobs-Jenkins seems to be sending-up this kind of belligerent domestic drama, though Eric Ting's production keeps the actors from tipping into parody.
The relentless animosity is played straight. Laughter, when it comes, springs from the outrageous aggressiveness of the characters. A little bit of this goes a long way, and the playwright is perhaps too faithful to his precedents, belaboring the living-room brutality in much the same way Letts does in "August."
The more compelling dimension of "Appropriate" has to do with how family members individually confront the possibility that the Harvard Law School-educated patriarch whose life they are packing up may have harbored noxious racial prejudices and might even have been a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Bo cannot believe such things about his father, but then he's surprised to learn that slaves were buried in the yard. Rachael, who's Jewish, shares that she experienced her father-in-law's anti-Semitism first hand. This naturally enrages Toni, who doesn't like the idea of an outsider butting into family business and promptly hurls anti-Semitic epithets at her sister-in-law.
Franz believes their dad, a reclusive hoarder, was bipolar. The two lived together in the house after they moved from Washington, D.C., to try to turn the place into a bed-and-breakfast, a financially disastrous idea that never got off the ground. The condition of the rooms, as brought to life in piles of clutter by set designer (and recent MacArthur grant recipient) Mimi Lien suggests that Franz may have known his father best.
Jacobs-Jenkins keeps the truth about the past a question mark. And in some ways it doesn't matter whether the apparently valuable photo album or the subsequently discovered and quickly discarded box containing specimen jars of what look to be body parts were his personal property or not, as they belong to the history of this Southern plantation and are, therefore, part of the family's heritage whether they want to own it or not.
The play's title reflects the meaning of the word "appropriate" in both its adjectival and verb forms. Characters are testing the line of suitable behavior just as they are questioning claims of legitimate ownership.
Bo, mistaking River for being Native American, explodes at her for trying to foist on him white guilt: "I come from a family of misfit disaster people, but I also have to walk through the world, trying to mind my own business, but getting accosted every 14 minutes ... for being a white guy. …You want me to go back in time and spank my great-great-grandparents? Or should I lynch myself?"
Jacobs-Jenkins tackles this issue not simply through the tussles of his characters but through his engagement with theatrical forms. He appropriates prime examples of America's dominant dramatic tradition —domestic realism — to see whether a more widespread national truth can be wrung from it.
Ting, following his playwright's plan, effectively establishes this theatrical world only to subtly subvert it as the play progresses. The characters, who appear at first as easily identifiable types, eventually reveal contradictory aspects that aren't always easy for the actors to integrate organically but are part of Jacobs-Jenkins' unsettling vision.
The ensemble, which includes Grace Kaufman as Cassie, Bo and Rachael's daughter, and Alexander James Rodriguez (alternating with Liam Blair Askew) as Ainsley, the couple's young son, is disturbingly convincing in dramatizing the family's tense relationships. When Hardin's Toni asks Tranfo's Rhys for a kiss, it's hard not to inwardly wince along with him.
"Appropriate" has an impressively designed coda that put me in mind of the "Time Passes" section of Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse." Jacobs-Jenkins wants us to witness what happens to the house, buffeted by rainstorms and vandals, after the family leaves.
This epic scope would pack more of a punch if the family squabbles were abridged, but "Appropriate" wants us to glance at the big movements of history while rooting us in the hectic and unwieldy travails of the day-to-day.
After a sensational revival of Martin Sherman's "Bent" this summer, the Taper is on a roll with this muscular production of "Appropriate." Jacobs-Jenkins is still maturing as a dramatist, but there's no denying that he's one of the rising stars in the American theater.
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 1.
Tickets: $25-$85 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 628-2772, www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes, including two intermissions