Can a script be both overambitious AND lazy?
|Victory Gardens Theater and the Humana Festival presents|
Review by John Olson
Several prestigious non-profit theaters are supporting this play, billed as “the Co-World Premiere” co-produced by Victory Gardens and the 2013 Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville, where it was previously staged in March of this year. A separate production is currently playing at Washington DC’s Wooly Mammoth Theatre and a production by New York’s Signature Theater is scheduled for next February. While Inappropriate is not a mystery, it’s a mystery to me what these august companies see in it. Even with the considerable talents of a creative team and cast that are among Chicago’s finest artists, this script is not worth the time and money of these companies or their audiences. Its author, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is much honored – he’s won a Paula Vogel Award, Helen Merrill Award and the inaugural Tennessee Williams Award, and indeed, there is considerable talent on display. Jacobs-Jenkins has a way with quick one-liners and briefly funny situations that work in a Norman Lear-ish sort of way, with much credit for this due to Director Gary Griffin’s crisp direction and the skills of his actors. These are only moments, though. The play, as a whole, is a kind of mishmash of overambitious goals and lazy writing.
Here’s the premise – three adult siblings have returned to the mid-southern home of their father who has recently died and their dysfunctional relationships play out over a few days in the home. The siblings here are the deeply angry oldest sister, Toni (Kirsten Fitzgerald); middle child Bo (Keith Kupferer) a successful New York businessman, and the prodigal son and much younger brother Franz (Stef Tovar). Franz (whose real name is Frank, he’s chosen Franz for some presumably New Age-y reason though I fail to see the connection) has been estranged from his older siblings for ten years and returns unexpectedly with his much younger fiancée. Well, Toni seems to feel the fiancée (with the legitimately New Age-y name of River) is inappropriately younger. The script says River is 23 and the actress playing her, Leah Karpel, reads as that age. Franz’s age isn’t specified, but Tovar reads as somewhere around 40, so the difference seems not all that exceptional. Yet, we’re expected to accept this as a major source of conflict for the play, one of many, many sources of conflict.
Toni has conflict with Bo for his not doing enough to take care of their father in the years before his death. She hates his wife Rachael, who she finds controlling, but who comes off to us as a fairly reasonable person under the circumstances. Her son Rhys (Alex Stage) hates Toni – or so we’re told by Rachael though we don’t see much evidence of it on stage. And Toni really hates Frank/Franz for something he did in the past. We’re not told exactly what, but there are hints that is has something to do with child sexual abuse. When the full nature of Franz’s crime is revealed, we’re supposed to be shocked that it has something to do with child sexual abuse! In fact it’s actually less shocking to us than we’ve been set up to expect. At least it’s less shocking to us than it is to the characters on stage. Frank, recovering from alcoholism with the help of River, resents his brother and sister for leaving him as a teenager in the care of their father, who he says was abusive, though we’re never told in what way he was abused. Toni defends their father but we don’t learn why she’s on his side. Bo is mostly noncommittal toward the memory of the dad, though he resents that the money he lent the father and brother to make a bed and breakfast of the old plantation mansion was wasted when they never used it for that purpose.
The main source of tension in the play, though, is supposed to be the discovery of an album of photos of dead and mutilated African-Americans, possibly as lynching victims. The sibs and the sister-in-law debate for a time if these photos had been collected by their father and if in fact he was racist. They don’t debate it very much, though. The bigger concern seems to be keeping it away from the eyes of the children (17-year old Rhys, 13-year-old Cassidy and 8-year-old Ainsley – Alex Stage, Jennifer Baker and Theo Moss/Mark Page respectively). They don’t, but they do spend time rehashing their own battles and introducing themes of drug and alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, hints of incest, anti-Semitism, and New Age philosophy. Is there a point or common thread to all this? Yes, at the end we see that Jacobs-Jenkins is suggesting the legacy of their ancestors sins as slave owners (though this is never explicitly stated, although the plantation home does sit next to a slave cemetery) that haunts the family to this day. An intriguing thought, to be sure, but it’s lost in Jacobs-Jenkins’ smorgasbord of themes and sins that seem to be thrown out one after another just to shock and amuse, without ever providing insight into the characters or the issues.
While his multiplicity of themes (including the big question of white guilt over slavery) is ambitious, the author’s failure to really explore any of them rather than just throwing them out there is lazy writing. Just as grievous is the way he draws his characters and situations. He continually tells rather than shows. The father was abusive, Frank is irresponsible, Rachael is controlling, Rhys hates his mother, Toni is depressed. That’s what the other characters say about them, but we don’t see it on stage. Characters don’t seem fully developed beyond the plot outline and we’re left in the company of eight sketchily drawn and thoroughly unpleasant people we just don’t want to be around.
Jacobs-Jenkins also has a way of either telegraphing events so we can see them coming well in advance, or making them wholly unmotivated. When the horrendous photos, which have been passed around before ending up in the hands of the irresponsible Frank are found to have great financial value, what do you suppose happens? At other moments, you can just tell when an exchange is going to escalate into shouting or physical altercations and sure enough, they arrive on schedule. Or conversely, when the photos are first discovered, the discussion moves so quickly into a fight between Toni and Rachael that’s so nasty that it seems unmotivated. Here’s another example – while the purpose of this family reunion is to sell the estate at auction, Toni, secretly and inexplicably cancels the auction – for no apparent purpose other than to keep the stage clear for the final conflicts.
The cast and director do their best with this mess. They fully commit to the situations and show precise comic timing that manages to wring a good number of laughs out of it. Among the actors, Stef Tovar is most successful in creating a full-blooded character out of the sketchy material the author has given him. Frank/Franz is worn down, but still hopeful and among them all seems to be the most self-aware. The others, though, are given just too many unmotivated situations and outbursts in this diagrammatic plot.
The set, designed by Yu Shibigaki is a wonderfully detailed antebellum living room, filled to the gills with photos and cluttered signs of the dead father’s hoarding thanks to the prop designs of Jesse Gaffney. Unfortunately it’s the play, not the house that ought to be condemned,
Appropriate continues through December 8th at Victory Gardens’s Začek McVay Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map), with performances Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $20-$60, and are available by phone (773-871-3000) or through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More info at VictoryGardens.org. (Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Kirsten Fitzgerald (Toni), Keith Kupferer (Bo), Stef Tovar (Franz), Cheryl Graeff (Rachael), Leah Karpel (River), Alex Stage (Rhys), Jennifer Baker (Cassidy), Theo Moss (Ainsley), Mark Page (Ainsley alternate).
behind the scenes
Gary Griffin (director), Yu Shibigaki, Brian Sidney Bembridge (set design), Janice Pytel (costume design), Jesse Klug (lighting design), Chris LaPorte (sound design), Jesse Gaffney (props), Ryan Bourque (fight choreographer), Dennis J. Conners (stage manager), Michael Brosilow (photos)