Photo by Craig Schwartz
Photo by Craig Schwartz
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Reviewed by Terry Morgan
Mark Taper Forum
Through Nov. 1

Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins made an impressive L.A. debut a few years back with the Matrix production of his play Neighbors. It was intense, funny, confrontational and it sought to make its audience uncomfortable in interesting ways. His latest L.A. production, the west coast premiere of Appropriate at the Mark Taper Forum, is a different sort of play. It still has moments intended to be shocking, but overall this is a tamer beast. This would be fine if it were compelling or had something new to say, but although the writing is generally good and the cast is terrific, it finally feels like a mildly entertaining three hour trip to nowhere significant.

The father of the Lafayette family has died, and his adult children and their families have gathered at the old plantation house in Arkansas to sell it and to get rid of all of the items inside the place at an auction.  Eldest child Toni (Melora Hardin) arrived early to arrange the contents for sale, but fell behind, which annoys her brother Bo (David Bishins). Toni doesn’t like Bo’s wife, Rachael (Missy Yager), which soon leads to much bickering. This situation is exacerbated by the surprise arrival of their ne’er-do-well youngest brother, Frank (Robert Beitzel) and his young girlfriend River (Zarah Mahler) – Frank hasn’t been seen by his relatives in a decade. When an offensive scrapbook of disturbing photographs is discovered among their father’s effects, it forces the siblings to reassess their past and inheritance in an unwelcome light.

Hardin steals the show as the endlessly combative Toni, a woman in whom sympathy has pretty much dried up. Hardin delivers her character’s venom with gleeful rage, bringing a fierce energy to the production. Bishins is excellent as Bo, the weary peacemaker trying to be fair to both of his siblings, and the conclusion to his story was for me the most moving moment in the play. Beitzel is also impressive, with the delivery of two monologues – one an apology and one an epiphany – being particular highlights. Mahler does good work as the stronger and smarter than she initially seems River, and Yager is sharply amusing as the frustrated Rachael.

Director Eric Ting gets superb work from his cast, and benefits from Mimi Lien’s gorgeous, cluttered plantation house first floor set. The problems here are unfortunately with the play itself. Jacobs-Jenkins is clearly a talented writer. The story is never boring,  his dialogue rings true and the first act is a deft and intriguing setup. But then the second act feels somewhat inconsequential and the final act fizzles out before the play ever delivers on the first act’s promise. Also, the shocking behavior of some of the characters doesn’t feel credible and seems shoehorned in simply to punch things up.

Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Dwntwn.; Tues.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 p.m., Sun 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.; through Nov. 1.