‘Appropriate’ Broadway Review: Sarah Paulson and Elle Fanning Fuel a Spectacular Family Smash-Up

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ contemporary classic about the sins of the father receives a stellar revival

Sarah Paulson and Elle Fanning in Appropriate
"Appropriate" (Credit: Joan Marcus)

The rotten apples don’t fall very far from the dead tree in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s great family comedy “Appropriate.” First seen in 2014, the play receives its belated but totally riveting first Broadway production, which opened Monday at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theater.

The three adult siblings at the core of this family dispute are amusingly nasty, backbiting, vile and loathsome toward each other. As families go onstage, the only ones approaching this brood in terms of miserableness would be the bickering bunch in Tracy Letts’s “August: Osage County” and Eugene O’Neill’s “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

The genius of Jacobs-Jenkins, as well as that of Letts and O’Neill, is that he keeps these three characters not only human but very relatable, especially if you happen to be of European descent and your family arrived to America a century or two or three ago. Jacobs-Jenkins gives each of his characters time to make his or her point, and, of course, each of them is rarely right. None of them, including their three young children, manages to escape the sins of the recently deceased patriarch who has left them his ancestral mansion (and former plantation) in Arkansas to dispose of.

The incisiveness of Lila Neugebauer’s marvelous direction is most evident in her control of those three principals. Playing the eldest sibling, the archetypal older sister-caretaker of the family, Sarah Paulson is very alpha here. Pissed-off to the extreme, her Toni can’t take one more infraction from her two younger brothers (Corey Stoll and Michael Esper), and lets them and her sister-in-law, Rachel (Natalie Gold) know it in no uncertain and very loud terms. Paulson manages to find nuance in her almost nonstop screeching.

Much better known for her performances in television, Paulson hasn’t been seen on Broadway for well over a decade, and in the meantime, Laurie Metcalf has held the franchise on these prickly defiant-woman roles. Paulson’s performance recalls Metcalf’s work in plays as varied as “Misery” and “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” but makes the Toni role her own, especially in a touching kiss-off speech to her two brothers, delivered with great style from the grand staircase of the magnificent two-story living room set, designed by dots.

Paulson’s performance begins loud and bitter, but ends soft and wounded. Neugebauer’s direction delivers the absolute reversal of that progression with Corey Stoll’s portrayal of the “successful” beta brother from New York City, Bo. Stoll remains quiet and extraordinarily reasonable, even when Toni takes the bait of his wife to deliver a slur on her Jewish heritage. And even when Rachel is freaking out over her two children (Alyssa Emily Marvin and Everett Sobers) having seen some racist artifacts in the vast mess that is her dead father-in-law’s house, Stoll’s Bo remains the still eye of the family storm swirling around all of them – until near the end. His late-in-the-play explosion, which is much louder than anything detonated by Paulson, provides the play’s comic high point.

Once upon a time not so long ago, the other brother, Franz (a.k.a. Frank), would have been called the black sheep of the family. Now, it is more politically correct just to call him a major loser, and he has disappeared from family view for a good 10 years. Franz has the bad timing to show up on the eve of the big auction, and brings with him a too-young girlfriend named River (Elle Fanning).

Playing Franz, Michael Esper perfectly embodies the ephemeral smoke that rises from Toni rubbing everyone the wrong way. He is full of apologies until he is full of the BS of a self-proclaimed baptism, even though the guilt he has inherited can never be washed away by a simple dip into the pond somewhere between the family’s ancestral cemetery and the cemetery of the slaves that his family once owned.

Elle Fanning makes an impressive Broadway debut playing the loopy River. It’s the one character where perhaps Jacobs-Jenkins’s originality deserted him. With her hippie garb (costumes by Dede Ayite) and plant-based diet and nonstop good-vibrations spiel, River is a cliché. Her real name isn’t River, it’s Tricia. At least the playwright didn’t name the character Karen. To her credit, Fanning resists going for the easy laugh.

Graham Campbell rounds out this extraordinary ensemble, playing Toni’s troubled teenage son, Rhys. He is the play’s mystery character, and Campbell is expert at keeping him at the edges of the drama, except for his middle-of-the-night jerk-off session that is misinterpreted – or not – by Uncle Franz.

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