by Les Spindle

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday October 7, 2015

Zarah Mahler, Grace Kaufman and Melora Hardin
Zarah Mahler, Grace Kaufman and Melora Hardin  (Source:Craig Schwartz)

The dictionary definition of "appropriate" is "suitable or proper in the circumstances" when used as an adjective. As a differently pronounced verb, its meaning becomes "take (something) for one's own use, typically without the owner's permission." Both usages of the word have bearing on the complex sociological themes explored in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Obie winning "Appropriate," a searing drama of family dysfunction, long-held secrets and broken dreams, now in its L.A. premiere.

One could mention the works of Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee and other great playwrights when describing the narrative, themes and seriocomic sensibilities of Jacob-Jenkins' play. It is a sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking portrait of adult siblings and their families gathering at the family home in Arkansas to oversee the selling of their late father's possessions and the settlement of his will.

The fast-rising scribe Jacobs-Jenkins, an African-American, also wrote the sardonically brilliant "Neighbors" (2010), which was staged at L.A.'s Matrix Theatre. It's a story in which a family of modern-day black minstrel performers moves next door to an upwardly mobile mixed-race family, leading to a blend of raucous Norman Lear-style antics alongside far more subversive and electrifying dramatic confrontations.

In "Appropriate," the initial conventionality in introducing the characters and basic storyline elicits raucous and sardonic laughs, as the depth of resentments among the siblings and their family members gradually come to light. Yet, there's far more than garden-variety family baggage afoot here, as we learn that a slave cemetery was formerly on the family estate, and the family members come across some ancient photographs that suggest daddy dearest might have been a KKK member. The fact that Rachael (Missy Yager), the wife of eldest son Bo (David Bishins) is Jewish, and believes the deceased patriarch always denigrated her adds to the resurrection of old baggage.

Yet the real catalyst at the center of the turmoil is divorced sibling Toni (Melora Hardin), an embittered woman, who thrives on recriminations, confrontation and utter control. Among other characters are prodigal brother, Frank (Robert Bietzel), a gadabout and drug addict, who turned his back on the family years earlier; River (Zarah Mahler), his much younger girlfriend; Toni's alienated teenage son Rhys (Will Tranfo), and the young children of Rachael and Bo (Grace Kaufman and Alexander James Rodriguez).

Tuning into the playwright's complex web of characters, narrative, and intricate themes is a challenge at times. A byproduct of such an ambitious dramatic brew is an intermittent loss of dramatic focus, despite the best efforts of director Eric Ting and the brilliant ensemble.

Though this is not a premiere production, Jacobs-Jenkins' script could still use pruning and refocusing. But the rewards for those willing to go along for the ride are a work filled with potent ruminations on timeless social issues and compelling insights into the ways families are torn apart and try to reconcile. The frailties and least admirable qualities of the characters are tellingly illuminated, yet Jacobs-Jenkins doesn't tie the themes he explores into a tidy bow. Like "Neighbors," this play is a daring and fascinating work that whets the appetite for more to come from this gifted scribe.

"Appropriate" runs through Nov. 1 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. For tickets and information, call 213-972-2772 or visit