Interviews

Interview: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Lila Neugebauer Give New Life to Appropriate

The two Tony nominees discuss their collaboration on the new revival of Jacobs-Jenkins’s 2014 dark comedy.

Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and director Lila Neugebauer first met at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville in 2013. It was there that Jacobs-Jenkins was premiering his play Appropriate, a pitch black comedy about a family going through their late patriarch’s belongings — and discovering his secrets along the way. Neugebauer saw it and it stuck with her: while she didn’t helm the New York premiere off-Broadway at Signature Theatre in 2014, she did mount the play with a group of students at Juilliard.

Ten years later, Appropriate, directed by Neugebauer, is the toast of Broadway, with a cast headed by Sarah Paulson, Corey Stoll, and Michael Esper. It did so well in its initial run at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theatre last winter that it transferred to the Belasco, where it runs through June 30. And it could take home the Best Revival prize at this year’s Tonys, too. Not bad for a play that many people may have written off after its first outing — but Neugebauer had faith all along that it was a home run. Here, the two Tony nominees discuss the active process of making art, and breathing new life into Appropriate.

2024 05 02 TM Tony Awards Meet the Nominees 186
Lila Neugebauer and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
(© Tricia Baron)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

I’ve been thinking a lot about seeing Appropriate both at Signature Theatre 10 years ago and at the Hayes on Broadway in December, and how my admiration of the play has shifted for the better, which is what a lot of the other reviews pointed out.

And then I started thinking about how that era of Signature, the late-period Jim Houghton programming that also included plays like Will Eno’s The Open House and John by Annie Baker, really trained us how to watch new American plays like this.

So, all of that to say, what has it been like to see people genuinely rediscover this play over the last six months?
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins: To be fair, we did get a rapturous review from Ben Brantley [10 years ago], which I think saved the life of the play. It was my first positive review from the Times ever, and it changed my life overnight.

I had a great moment with [playwright] Mark Ravenhill after the first outing, where he was like, “What you’re up to may take people a while to catch up to, and you have to be patient.” I have taken that to heart and tried to have faith in the work, and make sure that I was working with people who understood what I was trying to do. And that has been the case. There’s no cleaner example than with Appropriate. It’s been very surprising and honestly moving and gratifying to see the play met again.

I’m also aware that I was talking about things the culture might have been antagonistic to at the time. It was mid-second term Obama, Hamilton was around the corner, 45 was around the corner. There was a sense that I was trying to bring something up that culturally we had moved past. I think part of what’s happened is that history has happened. We have words now for concepts that we didn’t have before. People know what white fragility is. People feel the political divides in their families very clearly, whereas before, they might have looked past them.

Part of what’s been fascinating about this experience is talking to people like you, who have seen both productions. Most revivals, you’re living a long time before someone comes back to it. But Johanna Day [who starred in the Signature production] is fresh in your mind, and same. It’s interesting to be able to hold those ideas in your head close together and compare them and ask questions about what’s new and what’s different and what’s lasting.

But it feels like nothing I could have predicted. If you asked me 10 years ago if New York would ever see the play again, I’d be like “Probably not.” It is an icing on the cake that Appropriate gets to have this other moment of people loving on it.

Appropriate
The Pershing Square Signature Center/Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
A scene from the 2014 Signature Theatre production of Appropriate, directed by Liesl Tommy
(© Joan Marcus)

Lila, you go back and forth between new plays and revivals — do you treat the process differently?
Lila Neugebauer: We don’t have to dwell on him, but I’m really moved that you mentioned Jim Houghton, because I think Branden and I are both extensions and products of a very particular tradition at Signature Theatre. We both came up there. I don’t know if I’d be in the theater if Jim Houghton hadn’t given me a job and demonstrated faith in me.

Branden: I definitely would not be in the theater. I can say that confidently.

Lila: I think it’s unlikely I would be. But what’s interesting about what you point out is that all the revivals that I’ve done on Broadway have been in collaboration with a living writer. While Anton Chekhov may be dead, Heidi Schreck wrote a new play, because translation is an act of creative expression. She didn’t make up the story of Uncle Vanya. And while Branden did not update this play, he did do significant rewriting. I knew that Branden had some unanswered questions and unfinished business with this play, and I wanted him to be an active artist on the project.

I don’t feel I treated Appropriate radically dissimilarly from how I would approach a new play process. The process was, in significant part, about illuminating the vital and necessary changes that the writer needed to land the plane, while also looking to foster and facilitate the work of the actors.

I will also admit that I felt this play was a home run from the first time I saw it back in 2013 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. I directed a production of this play at the Juilliard School. And I think from our very first table read here, it was apparent that the chemistry of this ensemble was remarkable.

Branden: I think it is worth shouting out that Sarah Paulson was among the first actors we sent it to, and she responded so positively that I didn’t believe it.

Lila: Complete disbelief. It was an unmitigated, unqualified yes.

Branden: She was a huge part of the team in terms of getting us to rehearsal, basically. I just can’t believe I’m the horse she decided to ride in this derby.

Michael Esper, Ella Beatty, Natalie Gold, Alyssa Emily Marvin, Corey Stoll, and Sarah Paulson in Appropriate
The company of Appropriate on Broadway at the Belasco. Theatre
(© Joan Marcus)

I want to give the two of you the chance to ask each other questions about the process.
Branden: My question for Lila is, did anything about this process follow you into the other shows you directed this season? I saw it on Friday, but I was like “Are there cicadas at the top of Vanya?”

Lila: That was all [sound designer] Misha Fiksel. I was like “Is that a cicada?” And he was like “It’s summer in the Northeast.” And I was like “All they’re gonna think that I can do is cicadas in an opening-show blackout.” But that’s totally fine.

To answer your question, I thought about Appropriate so much while doing Vanya. In retrospect, I had been thinking about the play’s American theatrical antecedents, but there’s a lot of Chekhov in your play.

Branden: Yeah. I stole a lot of Chekhov. I mean, literally, opening a scene at night in a house that’s quiet.

Lila: Do you think it’s done? Are there any rewrites left?

Branden: There are two small things. I think I might have changed them for the published version. I can’t remember. It’s one thing for Sarah that I needed her to say earlier, and then it’s that thing I tried to get Corey Stoll to do at the last minute that he wouldn’t do. In some funny way, I don’t even know. I had a kid and that shifted my ability to access these characters in a positive way, and now I’m like “Oh, maybe if I just keep getting older, I’m gonna re-enter this play in different ways.” I have no idea. But I feel like it’s done. I’ve gotta be done.

 

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