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Grim family secrets are unearthed in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' scabrous drama.

Robert Beitzel, Will Tranfo, and Melora Hardin in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Appropriate, directed by Eric Ting, at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum.
(© Craig Schwartz)

Is the deserted and decaying Arkansas plantation at the center of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's Appropriate haunted by unfriendly spirits? Well, members of the Lafayette family who are drawn back to the estate to settle their late father's affairs could certainly make a convincing case for ghosts. Between the house's creeks and groans, a vaguely unearthly presence, and buzzing cicadas that sound like an alien invasion, the play's L.A. premiere at the Mark Taper Forum is more than "appropriately" unsettling — and not just for paranormal reasons.

The two Lafayette siblings, their children, and significant others already top out on dysfunction long before they start discovering disturbing items among their late father's bric-a-brac. Money and equity come into play as deep-seated resentment boils over and a tempest brews the likes of which we haven't seen since Tracey Letts' August: Osage County. With Melora Hardin pacing a smartly assembled cast, director Eric Ting's production offers plenty of squirms and more than a little dark humor.

Franz, the soiled prodigal son (played by Robert Beitzel), climbs in a window of his ancestral home in the middle of the night, accompanied by his 23-year-old girlfriend, River (Zarah Mahler). A screw-up during his youth, Franz has been off the grid for several years and has only just learned of his father's death six months ago. The house is due to be auctioned, and there will be an estate sale to pay off mountains of debt, but Franz's motives for turning up don't involve money. Franz's elder sister Toni (Hardin) is anything but welcoming. As the executor of her dad's estate (a job which she has botched), Toni is nursing all sorts of hostility. Her sullen son, Rhys (Will Tranfo) now wants to live with his father. Last to arrive is middle son Bo (David Bishins), his wife, Rachael (Missy Yager), their adolescent daughter Cassidy (Grace Kaufman), and young son Ainsley (Alexander James Rodriguez). Bo's family is facing money troubles, and Toni and Rachel can barely be in the same room together.

The more we learn about this family, the more twisted things get. The discovery of a particularly horrifying item among their father's belongings starts bringing up queasy questions about who this man was and the legacy he has dumped on his children.

Over the course of the next nearly three hours, family alliances develop, re-solidify and fracture. Under other circumstances, the Lafayette clan might have gathered for a very different type of family reunion, but Jacobs-Jenkins has designed this scenario for maximum toxicity. All of the mayhem takes place within a creepy setting, often in near darkness. Scenic designer Mimi Lien's split-level mansion catches every shadow and accommodates interesting technical effects. Christopher Kuhl's lighting and Matt Tierney's sound design greatly enhance the production's spooky mood. And for good reason, as Ting and his company clearly don't want their audience settling in comfortably.

In addition to having a keen ear for dialogue, Jacobs-Jenkins has penned several juicy monologues. Some are confessional while others are seething with bile. Across the board, the acting is top-notch, from Beitzel's addled and damaged Franz, to Yager's Rachael, infused with just the right amount of superiority. Bishins nicely shades the layers of Bo's dilemmas while Mahler packs some dramatic weight into River, a character who is by no means the spacey hippie chick she first appears to be. And Hardin is superb as a character who is by turns utterly blind and entirely self-aware. The actress steers Toni away from the melodramatic spectacle she might have been in different hands. The men in Toni's life have clearly screwed her over on more than one occasion, and Hardin gives us a woman who is fighting like mad to live on her own terms and maybe even keep her family together.

Despite their dirty secrets, the Lafayettes are a still a family. After spending several mesmerizing and uncomfortable hours in their presence, Jacobs-Jenkins makes us heartily glad they're not our family.