Only Ray Lafayette’s death could have drawn together his dysfunctional, alienated progeny. Convening at the rundown Alabama “plantation” in which he spent his last infirm decade, three children arrive with agendas as disparate and conflicting as their memories. House and property are debt-ridden. There’s to be an estate sale and auction. Blame permeates interaction. Mourning disinters things long left unsaid. So far formulaic, but parameters change with gusto. It’s summer 2011.
Michael Esper, Elle Fanning, Natalie Gold, Alyssa Emily Marvin, Corey Stoll, Sarah Paulson
Toni (Sarah Paulson), executor and oldest sibling, had driven back and forth some length to care for her now lionized father. Bitterness and cruelty erupt from her grief. The blistering character is as gorgeously remorseless as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf. High school age(?) son Rhys (Graham Campbell) has just been released from juvenile detention. He seems always in a fog. It’s been a helluva year. Toni was fired from her vice-principal job because of Rhy’s drug use, then divorced.
Michael Esper (Franz), Elle Fanning (River)
According to middle sibling (and unwitting mediator) Bo (Corey Stoll), it was Toni’s responsibility to pack up the near-hoarded house. He paid for Ray’s convalescence and feels he’s done his bit. Though entitled in his New York life, Bo lets Toni run roughshod over him. He’s impatient to get though proceedings salvaging as much as possible, and leave. Bo’s wife Rachael (Natalie Gold) wants to help, but goaded by Toni’s callous annoyance with her, reveals incidents of Ray’s bigotry and anti-Semitism (she’s Jewish). These are unequivocally denied by her sister-in-law. Their kids, precocious Cassidy (Alyssa Emily Marvin), 12, and unruly Ainsley (Everett Sobers), eight, are also present.
Third son Frank, now Franz (Michael Esper), arrives unexpectedly (through a window) after ten years of estrangement. He’s accompanied by fiancé, River (Elle Fanning), a young hippie woman who sages the living room, soothes him with new age platitudes, and cheerily makes vegetarian pancakes. Franz is a recovering addict with a secret crime of which River is unaware. Toni assumes the couple are there for mercenary reasons. Written speech ready, her sibling insists she has the wrong idea. She doesn’t buy it.
Alyssa Emily Marvin (Cassidy)
Tipping point comes with discovery of a relic, well, two, shedding repellent light on Lafayette père. Passed from person to unsuspecting person as if a hot potato, the first one is variously interpreted, hidden, intended for disposal and, at last, researched in terms of marketability. The stunning nature of these items and introduction into the plot is marvelous. This is a family afraid to face the past, each one of them with a clearly unstable future, much like the house.
Two time Pulitzer Prize finalist, playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins has written a sharp, perceptive piece pairing maladjustment with malignancy. Denial of the past surfaces both in family and national history. The latter is particularly relevant at a time when U.S. narrative is disastrously being rewritten to eliminate culpability. Personalities are adroitly detailed. Intrigued, we follow a yellow brick road until Oz blows up before our eyes.
Natalie Gold (Rachel), Corey Stoll (Bo)
Director Lila Neugebauer once again delivers believable, naturalistic acting. No matter how dramatic the situation or unsympathetic protagonists, the story lands authentic. Use of a two story set is theatrical without straying from logic. Comic moments like Franz’s embarrassed vaudeville slithering on the stairs are pitch perfect.
Sarah Paulson’s pinball savagery is as heated as it comes. It’s astonishing she still has a voice. Superlative timing interjects black humor but make no mistake, Toni’s is a vengeful, take-no-prisoners stance. Not a monster hair is out of place in this wholly wrought manifestation. A Toni-nomination performance.
Sarah Paulson (Toni)
Corey Stoll lets us see the chipping away of Bo’s bravado to reveal corrosive self doubt. General discomfort is palpable, silent emotion apparent, physical reactions as wry as they are credible. Watch for him elsewhere.
As Rachel, Natalie Gold presents an adroit, low key portrait of hamstrung frustration and parental protection.
In her stage debut Elle Fanning (River) delivers a confident, acclimated performance. Naïve, loving, and plucky she additionally imbues her character with apt confusion.
Ray’s “Plantation” Arkansas home is beautifully designed by the collaborative dots as architecture with gracious/majestic scale and significant detail. Love the enormous, peeling mural and carved banister. Every aspect of the set works except the impossible appearance of a tree in the last scene. Wait for it.
Costume design by Dede Ayite captures each personality. There’s no credit for wigs. Franz’s is cartoon nerd straining credibility.
This is the third play I’ve seen recently where lights and sound are an inordinately large part in manipulating mood and punctuating storyline. One can’t help thinking script could’ve accomplished the same thing with less gimmick. Appropriate’s deafening, (sounds like an ice storm or space landing) ominous cicadas and blackouts seem like disaster film overkill. Toning it down a bit would sustain the already fraught reality. Jane Cox (lighting design) and Bray Poor/Will Pickens (sound design)
Fight Captain Graham Campbell could do better. Misses are obvious.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Michael Esper, Corey Stoll, Sarah Paulson
Appropriate by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Lila Neugebauer
2ND Stage Helen Hayes Theater
240 West 44th Street