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Lazy Writing, Other Unfortunate Factors Combine for Soggy 'Appropriate' at Dobama Theatre 

It's probably not news to you that families have secrets, including yours. Also, it's probably not surprising that some of those secrets will eventually be revealed (including that thing with Aunt Doris).

Yes, secrets can rip families apart, which is why such stories have been a staple of playwrights for eons. In Appropriate, the often-outrageous, often-brilliant young African-American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has opted for a very traditional form of storytelling. Borrowing types and tropes from a variety of family dramas, he presents the all-white Lafayette family, assembling in sweaty summertime Arkansas, in mid collapse.

It is a bold choice, since Jacobs-Jenkins has muted his own inventive voice in the service of a conceit that attempts to reveal the unthinking, natural racism that infects many people in this country. But in this production, the usually splendid director Nathan Motta leads his cast into multiple dead ends that finally become as exhausting as the over-amped cicada sound effects that accompany each scene change.

The Layfayette clan (you should excuse the term) is gathering after the death of Pappy F., the old man who held the brood together. They are there to commiserate and pick over what's left of the family's rundown homestead. Not only that, the big house is surrounded by separate graveyards, as was the custom back in the day down there — one for the deceased family members and one for the slaves.

At the beginning, son Frank, who has renamed himself Franz, sneaks in through a window with his self-named fiancee River. Why they sneak in is never quite explained, since it becomes clear later on that they've been summoned to the old man's casa. But never mind, it allows for moody lighting and a surprise when Franz' nephew Rhys rises up from where he was sleeping under a blanket on the couch like a Halloween spook.

Yes, you guessed it: This is a ghost story, and every member of the eight-person family will be touched by some scary stuff by the end. These include Franz' sister Toni, an edgy middle-aged divorcee who's been caring for Pops. She is joined by her brother Bo, his wife Rachael, and their kids — teenager Cassidy and rug rat Ainsley.

It doesn't take long for the sparks to start flying, as Toni clashes with just about everyone in sight. When Rachael laments her status as "Bo's Jew wife" and sarcastically invites the acidic Toni to call her a couple hateful epithets, Toni snarkily obliges.

But most of the tension arises from a scrapbook which comprises photos of lynched black folks, which was evidently kept as a treasured family heirloom by their dead daddy. The playwright proceeds to show how each of the family members reacts to this rancid object, from outright horror to dreams of cashing it in on eBay.

Unfortunately, that authorial cleverness is slowly dampened by a production that finds itself stuck in a one-note rut too soon and too often. Director Motta allows his cast, many of whom have extensive stage experience, to attack each other in similar tones of voice and speech patterns. As a result, the supposedly sizzling family dynamics soon devolve into predictable sitcom-like shouting matches.

In the pivotal role of Toni, Tracee Patterson spits nails with panache but doesn't manage to find a more interesting core at the heart of this damaged woman. As Franz and River, Abraham McNeil Adams and Kelly McReady lend a new-agey goofiness, especially in Franz' monologue about forgiveness. And Ireland Derry's Cassidy, Jacob Eeg as Rhys, and Miles Pierce as Ainsley show their confusion as the next generation growing up into this toxic landscape.

There's a lot going on in this nearly three-hour play, and some characters just get lost. As Bo, the excellent actor Tom Woodward seems a bit adrift, caught between defending his father's reputation and protecting his wife. And although Ursula Cataan as Rachael matches Patterson's Toni in terms of argumentative energy, her character as written is almost totally reactive and thereby unable to assert a clear identity of her own.

The magnificently shabby set designed by Cameron Michalak is a fine and proper mess. However a series of concluding vignettes, featuring only the set as it crumbles, is meant to symbolize disintegration. Unfortunately it is so over the top it triggers (unintended?) laughter from the audience.

Even a big and well-executed fight (nod to fight choreographer Ryan Zarecki) near the end of the play feels both extraneous and pro forma. By lazily trying to co-opt existing scripts and characters, playwright Jacobs-Jenkins has painted himself into a corner.

Some minor but significant production wrinkles combine with the less-than-incisive script to leave Appropriate in the nether world between serious family drama and a parody of the same. Perhaps it would have been better if a giant cicada had crushed the collapsing home at the end. But no, either way the sound effect would still be crickets.

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