Stef Tovar and Leah Karpel in Appropriate at Victory Gardens Theater.
Stef Tovar and Leah Karpel in Appropriate at Victory Gardens Theater.
(Photo courtesy of Victory Gardens Theater)

Appropriate, a new play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, wants to be a substantial family drama but, before this play moves from Victory Gardens Theater to the Actors Theatre of Louisville (in a co-world premiere production), Jacobs-Jenkins needs to balance the elements and focus his intentions in order to keep the work from veering towards sitcom territory.

Appropriate concerns battling siblings who gather in Arkansas to liquidate their late father's million-dollar estate. When Toni (Kirsten Fitzgerald) and Bo (Keith Kupferer) and their families arrive from Atlanta and New York, respectively, they are surprised to find estranged kid brother Frank (Stef Tovar). Now calling himself Franz, he's been out of communication for years but is the only one of the three to have grown up in the house they are about to sell.

Reunited after a decade, the siblings quickly begin to air their dirty laundry. Toni and Bo both claim to have taken more care of Dad than the other in his declining years, and each now intends to extract his/her due from the estate. Frank, it turns out, has a past of substance abuse and fondling underage girls. Now clean and in recovery, Frank has come to ask forgiveness. In the middle of all the interpersonal stuff, they discover that the estate will barely bring enough to pay off debts, and that their late Old Man secretly was a member of the Ku Klux Klan who collected photos of lynched African-Americans.

It's quite a lot of baggage, much of which is very serious; but anyone can see that Jacobs-Jenkins is piling up so high that it's going to come crashing down after teetering and a crazily comic spell, and that's where the tonal trouble begins. Frank is a classic slacker with a candle-lighting new-age girlfriend who's changed her name to River (Leah Karpel). His sister Toni is an unforgiving punisher of everyone who is such a foul-mouthed, toxic blowhard that it becomes impossible to take her seriously. To add even more to the already tall pile, Bo's teenage daughter has a crush on her cousin, Toni's teenage son, who someone suggests may be gay. From there, the baggage keeps on coming as more explosive plot points are tossed off gratuitously and have no impact on the outcome, which makes it difficult for the audience to relate to any one character when their flaws and dark underbelly are being exposed, but never pursued.

Director Gary Griffin (The Color Purple) and his company are masters of a crowded, busy set as they skillfully pursue one another around designer Yu Shibigaki's gracious but modest living room, filled to the brim with boxes, bags, cartons, and cases of late dad's possessions. For his cast, Griffin has selected several of Chicago's top veteran performers among whom Kirsten Fitzgerald is the standout. She maintains a grating, never-relenting hard edge even when she's speaking softly, and her physical presence is intimidating as she is as tall as Kupferer and taller than Tovar. Jacobs-Jenkins gives everyone acid-tongued dialogue delivered with aplomb, which one would call snappy if found in a comedy.

Very simply: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins needs to figure out what kind of play he wants to write. While the first act is taken up solely by exposition and discovery, as Jacobs-Jenkins juggles not only the characters already mentioned, but several more supporting players as well. All of these introductions and unpacking of baggage make for a longer second act that must push hard to make something happen, let alone resolve personal issues and plot lines. The presumed culmination of the show is a pure farcical moment that also turns out to be the climax. The actual resolution returns to drama with two very sober scenes and an inexplicable ghostly epilogue, leaving Appropriate feeling entirely inappropriate and confusing.