By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Through May 26
Studio Playhouse, 14 Alvin Place
By GWEN OREL
There is seriously good acting going on at Studio Playhouse, in “Appropriate” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Verona’s Mark Liebert.
“Appropriate” is the kind of play you’d expect to see in a college drama department or in a professional house. It won an Obie Award for Best New American Play in 2014-2015. Studio Playhouse’s other productions this season included comedies by Woody Allen, Neil Simon and John Cariani’ “Almost, Maine.” So the choice is startling.
“Appropriate” takes place on an Arkansas plantation, as a white family gathers to prepare for an auction and estate sale and find they must deal with an ugly past.
If you’d like to see some of the best acting you’ll see on New Jersey stages right now, you should hurry on down for tickets. The play runs through May 26.
Jacobs-Jenkins’ play has an arresting central conceit (mild spoiler as this doesn’t happen in the first scene, but happens early enough) as they sort through the hoarded debris on a run-down plantation six months after the patriarch’s death (mild spoiler here — but central to the plot), the family discovers an album full of lynching postcards and photographs.
Why? Were they their late father’s? What does it all mean?
Today, with the news full of black people having police called for napping in a dorm room, sitting at Starbuck’s, shopping at Nordstrom’s, the play couldn’t feel more relevant. It’s about white privilege, unspoken racism, inherited violence.
Although the funeral took place six months earlier, along the way during the house clearing all kinds of family squabbles come to light, as they often are after a death.
There’s Toni (Deshja Driggs-Hall, of Montclair), the oldest sibling, angry at the world, with cause. She’s gone through a bitter divorce, and her son is getting kicked out of school for selling drugs, which leads to the loss of her own job as assistant principal. There’s resentment over the youngest sibling suddenly turning up after 10 years. Her brother Bo (Bill Barry, also of Montclair), is trying to keep his Jewish wife Rachael (Debra Carozza) and Toni from killing one another, while trying to both appease family members and face up to the possibility that they didn’t know everything about their dad. And then there’s Frank (Michael Turner), now calling himself “Franz,” who surprisingly shows up with his younger girlfriend River (Emily Miller), after being AWOL for a decade, and battling with addiction.
There are three children too — Toni’s son Rhys (William Lund), and Rachel and Bo’s daughters Ainsley, 8 (Nadia Nale) and 13-year-old Cassidy (Madelyn Barkocy).
Liebert also has a silent figure, the ghost of Dad, appear, which is not in the published script. The plantation itself is a character. Dad was a hoarder and we first see the house literally covered in junk, empty boxes, debris, so much so that people can barely sit down. Liebert also designed the set.
“Appropriate” is the kind of play nobody should attempt without a Toni who can modulate between anger and pain and humor quickly and plausibly, without a Bo who can show despair and hope and anger, and with both showing the intimacy and rage of grown siblings that never leaves them. It would be like doing “Death of a Salesman” without a Willie Loman, or “A Streetcar Named Desire” without a wonderful Blanche. Just don’t do it.
Driggs-Hall and Barry shine.
Driggs-Hall, new to Studio, is a professional actress, and one can only hope to see more of her now. Her Toni is wild, volatile, yet never merely crazy. She’s always relatable and always on the edge of being sympathetic. Barry’s Bo feels long-suffering, trying to be kind, and more on a wire than he can let on, yet we see it in every eye roll. Together they are electric and exciting.
The rest of the cast rises to the occasion, particularly Turner’s twitchy, trying-hard Frank, though he looks a bit too young for anybody to accuse him of having a much-younger girlfriend (it’s a plot point). The kids are all fine, and Miller’s River brings a dignity to what could easily be played as merely a hippy-dippy caricature, particularly when she makes “quinoafles.” Carozza’s Rachael ably shows humor until her Mama Bear patience is broken. Throughout, Liebert keeps his cast truthful, never hammy.
The play, clocking in at close to three hours, could so easily just be a bitter argument of “Was Daddy a racist.” In Liebert’s production, even more than at Signature, Jacobs-Jenkins’ classical plotting and reveal of secrets feel brilliantly timed.
That also has to come down to Liebert’s direction, which keeps the pace from ever dragging or becoming bombastic. The arguments escalate but never repeat.
The catharsis when it comes is powerful. And it sticks.