Johanna Day, Michael Laurence, Patch Darragh, and Maddie Corman play the members of a squabbling family in Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins' Appropriate, directed by Liesl Tommy, at Signature Theatre.
Johanna Day, Michael Laurence, Patch Darragh, and Maddie Corman play the members of a squabbling family in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Appropriate, directed by Liesl Tommy, at Signature Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

A great concept gone wrong is one of the bigger heartbreakers in drama. Such is the case with Appropriate, a new play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at Signature Theatre.

In a nod to nearly every family drama ever written, Appropriate is set in the rambling, ramshackle Southern home of a deceased patriarch, whose children have returned to posthumously divvy the estate. That group includes disgraced school principal Toni (Johanna Day), wealthy New York businessman Bo (Michael Laurence), and Franz (Patch Darragh), the black sheep formerly known as Frank who just showed up, climbing through a window, after a 10-year absence. They're joined by respective family members, Toni's teenage son Rhys (Mike Faist), Bo's Jewish wife, Rachael (Maddie Corman), and their children, Cassidy (Izzy Hanson-Johnston) and Ainsley (Alex Dreier), along with Franz's new fiancée, River (Sonya Harum).

After the requisite sniping and backbiting, a photo album is unearthed among the piles of clutter. To the disgust and disbelief of the Lafayette clan, this book contains snapshot after snapshot of black men getting lynched. The embittered Toni refuses to entertain the idea that her daddy could have been a big old racist, causing even more friction between her and her sister-in-law Rachael when the latter starts alleging that he, too, was an anti-Semite. And that's just the first act.

The playwright's idea is just so good that the decision to mash up hoary old theatrical tropes to tell his story is massively disappointing. Jacobs-Jenkins has written a play jammed — to the point of excess — with revelations that impact each and every family member. Unlike, say, August: Osage County, where, no matter how crazy or angry things got, the characters were recognizably human, Appropriate puts a group of archetypes in a room and asks them to literally slug their way out. The performers try valiantly to find the heart within each role, with only Faist and Hanson-Johnston as cousins with an awkward friendship fully succeeding.

More detrimental is director Liesl Tommy's staging, which is tonally confusing and infuses a play that doesn't seem like a dark comedy with grimly comedic elements: actors screaming at one another until they're hoarse, over-the-top line deliveries, and a knock-down-and-drag-out fight in the second act that culminates in one of the most visually shocking things seen onstage in recent memory. This device, played for broad laughs, ruins what should be a horrifying moment of realization for everyone onstage.

Fortunately, Tommy's production is stunning to look at, with a set eye-popping in its scope and messiness, designed by Clint Ramos, appealing contemporary costumes also by Ramos, gorgeously moody lighting by Lap Chi Chu, and the just-slightly-uncomfortable-making sound of crickets enveloping the entire room by Broken Chord.

Ultimately, Jacobs-Jenkins' message is obscured by his insistence on sticking to something so conventional. What could have made a significant impression on the American dramatic canon lands with a mere ho-hum.