Tuesday, April 30, 2024

REVIEW: Appropriate

Review of the Wednesday, April 24, 2024 matinee performance at the Belasco Theatre in New York City. Starring Sarah Paulson, Corey Stoll, Michael Esper, Natalie Gold, Ella Beatty, Graham Campbell, Alyssa Emily Marvin and Lincoln Cohen. A play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Scenic design by dots. Costume design by Dede Ayite. Lighting design by Jane Cox. Sound design by Bray Poor and Will Pickens. Directed by Lila Neugebauer. 2 hours 40 minutes, including one intermission. 

Broadway boasts a thrill ride these days in the form of a play revival called Appropriate. This stunner feels much like riding a dark coaster like Space Mountain. I, like much of the audience alternately shrieked with laughter, gasped at surprises and recoiled in horror - sometimes all three at once!

Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has created a family drama so tightly constructed and effortlessly quirky, that each time you think you have a handle on what you are watching, it twists in a surprising direction. As a family gathers to settle the estate of their late father, secrets are unpacked and build one upon the other, so much so that they don't recognize each other (or themselves, for that matter) by the time it is over. Much like going through the literal piles of accumulated junk in the house, so, too, are the characters unpacking old animosities and painful prejudices. Jacobs-Jenkins offers up a scathing, no holds barred look at the complications all families have, and I found myself replaying events of the play substituting my family for the one onstage at the Belasco.

As expansive as dots.'s set is, with its huge plantation house main room, grand staircase and second floor balcony, Lila Neugebauer's tight, unrelenting direction renders the play nearly claustrophobic by the end, as if the walls are closing in on the last people there. Aiding in this intensity are the haunting lighting effects by Jane Cox and the eerie, threatening sound effects of Bray Poor and Will Pickens. Scenes are punctuated by rapid blackouts and the relentless screaming of cicadas, culminating in a thrilling coda of sorts (no spoilers here).

Two generations of this family have arrived to take care of things, each with different motives, desired outcomes, and buried issues. The younger generation, ranging from young child to late teen, is represented by three terrific actors, none of whom seem new to their craft. As the youngest, Ainsley, Lincoln Cohen doesn't have much to say, but his presence is always welcome, and he provides one of the most shocking moments of the entire play. He nails the innocence of a protected, unencumbered childhood. The early teen curiosity, defiance and boy-crazy silliness of Cassidy is played by Alyssa Emily Marvin in pitch perfect balance between naivete and a certain blase wisdom of someone growing up in a Tik Tok, Instagram world. What makes her performance so endearing is her utter shock at the most mundane aspects of life in her family, and her completely nonplussed reactions to the most shocking revelations. Finally, there is the brooding presence of Graham Campbell as Rhys, almost an adult and so far headed straight for trouble. This young man is likable but deceiving in his penchant for finding trouble just to be noticed. Campbell takes being the observer to new levels, while his physical impulses balance out the volatility of his simmering emotions. He is an actor to watch for in the future.

The older generation - the children of the deceased - are a complicated mess of feelings, long harbored resentments and lifetimes of bad choices. Along with the three siblings are a wife and a significant other. All five are brilliantly rendered by perfectly cast actors. The wife (Natalie Gold) may not be blood, but she is wound just as tightly, harboring justified resentfulness while desperately trying to shelter her kids from any real or perceived danger. In a jaw-dropping few minutes full of slurs and obscenities, she finally confronts her issues. When the youngest brother arrives on the scene, he brings a flighty, new age interloper - a younger woman (Ella Beatty), who is much more than she seems to be. Much more. Ms. Beatty has that presence many actors wish they had, and following this auspicious debut, I'm certain she'll have a long stage career.

It is, however, the trio of family members that are the center of this gripping drama. The youngest brother arrives on the scene under mysterious circumstances with a girlfriend and an odd name change. Michael Esper, in the best performance of his career to date, imbues this down on his luck loser trying valiantly to make amends for a past he will never outrun with an endearing vulnerability. At first blush, the middle brother (Corey Stoll) seems the most together of them all - a family, wealth, and a cocky self-assured air. Stoll's performance, enigmatic and frustratingly stolid, builds and builds to a shocking and ultimately cathartic denouement. It is Sarah Paulson, however, that runs the show as the take charge oldest sister. A swirling mix of self-righteousness, perpetual victim-hood, and fierce protector, she (and her vice-like grip on her character) keeps you guessing about what she will do next. In short, Ms. Paulson gives one of the most beguiling performances I've ever witnessed.  

It is a credit to the playwright, the direction and the cast alike that the play never devolves into soap opera melodrama, and, instead gives us captivating, edge-of-your-seat theater. One of my favorite plays. Ever.

📸: J. Marcus


  1. Michael Esper absolutely deserved a Tony nod for his performance.

  2. I couldn't agree more. A tough role, beautifully played.


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