Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' play Neighbors sparked a national controversy for featuring a family called the Crows, who wear blackface and embody the stereotypes of a minstrel show. Despite the intriguing premise, the Matrix Theatre's 2010 production here felt provocative for the sake of it. (The playwright, 30, has acknowledged that the play now makes him “cringe a little bit.”)
His second play to reach L.A. — 2013's Appropriate, now at the Mark Taper Forum — also plays with tropes, but by comparison, it's wildly conventional: Three siblings and their families return to their father's Arkansas mansion and plantation after his death to sell his home and belongings.
Though Jacobs-Jenkins has admitted that play appropriates stories from his favorite plays, that doesn't shield him from criticism when the ultimate product feels too familiar. Secrets trickle out, siblings bicker over things such as who was which parent's favorite, and the distribution of past responsibility for the dad's deteriorating health is carefully balanced, for maximum tension: One wrote the checks, one put in the time caring for him and one had to actually live with the guy.
The welcome wrench in this machine is the revelation of a shocking photo album from the plantation's racist past. But no one tries too hard to find out whether the dad created it, collected it or simply didn't throw it away after finding it when he bought the home. Instead of capitalizing on this enticing premise, the play uses the album primarily for tedious games, such as whether to get rid of it, how to keep it away from the kids and who has it now. Sure, regardless of what the dad actually did, the family has a racist heritage — but Appropriate doesn't convincingly connect that history to the characters' assholery in the present.
The play brings in other exasperating contrivances, as the siblings, their significant others and children sneak around the house and discover each other's secrets and vulnerabilities, through three hours and two (!) intermissions.
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Though the proceedings keep you engaged, it's hard to feel a strong affinity for any of these characters, especially the sister, Toni (Melora Hardin of TV's The Office), who defends her dad while haranguing everyone else. The exception, at times, is her brother Frank (Robert Beitzel), who is trying to make amends after his past disappearance and misbehavior.
August: Osage County, the play's most obvious recent ancestor, also features flawed family members treating one another badly, but the Broadway production of that show reached a boiling point of comic absurdity, conjuring a “these people are crazy but so is the world” feeling that Appropriate does not, under Eric Ting's direction.
The play compensates somewhat with its haunting imagery and sound design, like the shrieks of the cicadas and a genuinely chilling epilogue. But all the spookiness leads to some ham-handed symbolism, culminating in a camera flashing at the audience. Hey theatergoers, in case you didn't realize it, these people in the play (and the photos) could be you.
Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; through Nov. 1. (213) 628-2772, centertheatregroup.org.