Andrew Boyce

Inappropriate Behavior

Review of Appropriate, Westport Country Playhouse

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Obie-winning play Appropriate lets viewers choose where to place the stress in the title, and it also leaves to viewers how many big dysfunctional family dramas are “appropriate” to name as “appropriated” material. The playbill trots out everything from the most obvious, Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County and Sam Shepherd’s Buried Child, to some a bit of a stretch—Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, and even Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. That kind of “spot the antecedent” game seems to me a bit counter-productive. The play not mentioned that at least would serve some purpose as a thematic comparison is Ibsen’s Ghosts where the true nature of a patriarch and what that means to his offspring is very much to the point.

The patriarch in this case is a once well-heeled Washington lawyer recently deceased after twenty years of decrepitude. His children are gathered to dispose of his plantation in Arkansas, spookily moldering with a hoarder’s trash inside and, outside, separate graveyards for family members and slaves. We watch as estranged son Frank, now Franz (Shawn Fagan)—missing from the family for ten years—climbs in through a window with his free-spirit vegan girlfriend River (Anna Crivelli). Their presence sets off the eldest sibling, Toni (Betsy Aidem), who, as executrix and chief caregiver during their father’s long decline, is quite vocal in her sense of propriety and grievance. The middle sibling is Bo (David Aaron Baker), a typical New York pater with a fussy Jewish wife, Rachael (Diane Davis), and two kids—Cassie (Allison Winn), a thirteen-year-old who claims stridently that she’s “almost an adult,” and a boy, Ainsley (Christian Michael Camporin), who seems content to be a child. Toni’s son, Rhys (Nick Selting), a twenty-something, is also on hand to feel generally put upon by all the middle-aged Sturm und Drang on display among his elders.

Franz (Shawn Fagan), Rachael (Diane Davis), Rhys (Nick Selting), Toni (Betsy Aidem), Bo (David Aaron Baker) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Franz (Shawn Fagan), Rachael (Diane Davis), Rhys (Nick Selting), Toni (Betsy Aidem), Bo (David Aaron Baker) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Andrew Boyce’s scenic design is stunning, letting us experience the space with these visitors and giving director David Kennedy a fully realized world for Jacobs-Jenkins’ characters, who are by terms abrasive, pathetic, amusing, and sympathetic, but never endearing.

River (Anna Crivelli), Franz (Shawn Fagan)

River (Anna Crivelli), Franz (Shawn Fagan)

Franz claims to be seeking reconciliation; Toni clings to Rhys and generally undermines everyone else; Bo plays middle-man as if it’s his natural calling. Every role is filled superlatively, with special mention for Aidem’s bull-at-a-garage sale of a domineering but vulnerable sister, and for Baker’s harried decency as Bo. Crivelli plays River as comic but not a caricature, which helps a lot, and Davis does well finding the heart of Rachael, a character who seems determined to be superficial. Fagan’s Franz is almost likeable, though we suspect, as the play goes on, that Toni is not simply spiteful in her view of her little brother’s failings; his character is rewardingly mercurial. And director Kennedy gets perfectly modulated performances of youthful disaffect and awkwardness from Selting's Rhys and Winn's Cassie.

Toni (Betsy Aidem), Rhys (Nick Selting) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Toni (Betsy Aidem), Rhys (Nick Selting) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The clarity of exposition is much to the point here and makes staying in place with this family a drama of well-timed revelations. Family dramas owe some of their popularity, no doubt, to the fact that all families have skeletons in the closet and harbor family members who often bring out the worst in each other. We look on with a level of complicity that is determinate for how much we get out of the cast’s exchanges, which can be almost sweet at times, and, at other times, full-bore hostile.

Jacobs-Jenkins, however, has more on his mind than who said what to whom and who neglected whom and who has gone off the rails—there’s drug abuse, alcoholism, seduction of a minor, drug dealing, antisemitism, and divorce, in the past, and job loss and marriage and new parenthood in the prospective future. But that’s all, as it were, window dressing to the big question nagging everyone, perhaps more than would actually be the case: what’s with the photo albums of African-American lynching victims preserved on a book case, and what’s with the jars that contain what seem to be body parts?

Appropriate makes us ask what reaction is appropriate to such discoveries. Much as we might wonder how we ourselves might handle evidence of such virulent racism in a loved one, we also realize that this family is being made to shoulder a legacy it can ill sustain. The script cunningly lets us see each character navigate, badly, the minefield of these artifacts’ existence. And Kennedy, whose direction of The Invisible Hand last season at Westport showed a similar skill with ethical gray areas, keeps things tense and probing. Neither director nor author shy away from showing us how the family dynamic—any family dynamic—is a means to shelter and exclude. Here, the excoriation the characters level at each other serves to highlight a more general social dysfunction that festers where they can’t quite get at it.

Rachael (Diane Davis), Bo (David Aaron Baker) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Rachael (Diane Davis), Bo (David Aaron Baker) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Engaging enough thanks to its wonderful cast, set, and direction, Appropriate’s structure can feel a little flabby at times, particularly in a second act that gives the younger cast members stage time and lets the elders take a bit of a rest, but is a bit too relaxed and sit-com-like to maintain the play’s edge. But that weakness is more than made up for by Act Three. With its teasing black-outs—punctuated by deafening cicadas—striking special effects, explosive fight, sustained speeches from all the principle characters, scene-stopping intrusion by Ainsley, and quirky sense of roiling crisis, Appropriate’s finale delivers appropriate theatrical thrills.


By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by David Kennedy

Scenic Design: Andrew Boyce; Costume Design: Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Props Master: Alixon Mantilla; Production Dramaturg: Dana Tanner-Kennedy; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Geoff Boronda

Cast: Betsy Aidem, David Aaron Baker, Christian Michael Camporin, Anna Crivelli, Diane Davis, Shawn Fagan, Nick Selting, Allison Winn

Westport Country Playhouse
August 15-September 2, 2017

On the Job

Heidi Schreck’s The Consultant is a thoughtful comedy, a consideration of the kinds of relationships that form in the workplace. In a world where “job security” is a great desiderata, one would expect that meaningful relationships at work would also be desired. Such seems to be not always the case, and that leaves room for a play like Schreck’s, a way of investigating the interplay of personality and opportunity on the job. That’s not to say that The Consultant is a job-based play, as in an exposé of a certain profession. The main players at Sutton, Feingold, and McGrath—such as the boss Harold—are never portrayed. We’re viewing the middle management level but we spend most of our time in the reception area where Tania (Cassie Beck), an NYU grad with a Comp Lit degree, mans the ship, sorta. Tania’s not very good at her job and from that follows much of what happens here. One of the subtle aspects of the play is that it shows us people who, in being themselves, aren’t quite what their job descriptions require. This isn’t a play about the dehumanization that takes place in the workplace but rather about the human situations that fleetingly come and go while the world of work churns on. Sometimes, indeed, work seems to be an inconvenience even while on the job.

SFM is a pharmaceutical ad agency. A business that we might imagine to be fairly flush, as such things go, but even such a major contributor to our collective well-being is feeling the pinch in the “global downturn” of 2009, which is to say that no one we meet feels quite so secure as they might otherwise. In particular, Jun Suk (Nelson Lee), who has taken on the clients of the recently departed Barbara (Lynne McCullough), is having problems. He’s a capable designer but not a capable presenter of his ideas. Enter Amelia (Clare Barron), hired to be “the consultant” who will help him get his act together. Amelia, a student at NYU, is more or less moonlighting here, as her real expertise is ESL tutoring. No matter, Jun Suk is desperate for a helping hand and, while not enthusiastic about her or her coaching, lets it continue, largely because of the earnest efforts of Mark (Darren Goldstein), a manager, to get him some help. Jun Suk doesn’t suffer fools gladly and that’s the sort of thing that can sour your audience in a corporate presentation.

As Amelia, Clare Barron is perfect. She has a girlish earnestness that flirts with cluelessness but comes off as authenticity. Amelia’s not really faking anything and that in itself seems a breath of fresh air in this environment. Barron has a knack for non-reaction reactions that does a lot for her role as witness more than catalyst—though in one key scene she unwittingly helps to bring down the “friends” she has tried to make here, particularly Tania and Mark. Such unwittingness is what keeps this play interesting. Rather than watching for “agendas,” we’re watching how people undermine themselves and others even when trying to be helpful.

As Jun Suk, Nelson Lee has the role with the most leverage, so to speak. Do we warm to him or not? He’s a prickly guy and yet, because he seems the most put-upon, we tend to hope he’ll be ok. This isn’t the kind of play where romance bells are going to sound for Jun Suk and his consultant, so the suspense is in whether or not Amelia’s work with him pays off. Romance might be happening between Tania and Mark, but on the other hand, it could just be a shack-up with consequences, or not.

Schreck’s dialogue has an ear for natural wit, the kind of comebacks that occur normally. It’s not sit-com humor and, as directed by Kip Fagan, everyone is sorta likeable, but also at times questionable. It’s a lot like life in that way. When Amelia, filling in for Tania, meets the formidable Barbara, we get a whiff of life outside the ad agency—Barbara seems to have become some kind of self-help guru and Amelia might be a likely candidate for her teachings. The situations in The Consultant suggest a world where no one is happy with their jobs and everyone is worried about keeping them anyway. Schreck wants to suggest the possibilities that come when things crash.

From that point of view, the play ends on a positive note, as the last scene takes place outside SFM with perhaps the beginnings of a bond between Amelia and Tania, to convey the “family” of co-workers. But the scene that struck me most between the two was when Tania—stressed out at losing her job and losing Mark’s attentions—gives Amelia, who is feeling newly empowered à la Barbara, the cold-shoulder, though Amelia clearly wants to be friends. It’s a moment where all the good will in the world doesn’t work if someone—in this case Tania—won’t let you in. True, that’s part of family and friendships too, not just workplace bonhomie, but it spoke volumes about the difficulty of relationships that take place only “on stage”—on the job.

As a staged space, Andrew Boyce’s set design and Matt Frey’s lighting are very realistic, so much so that when Amelia and Jun Suk go into the conference room we overhear them through miked pick-ups. This has the effect of putting distance between the common space of the reception area and the inner sanctum of the conference room, which made the interactions in the latter seem more forced—it was easy to understand why no one would want to stay in there. Outside, in Tania’s space, is where all the meaningful slippages occur, including the after effects of hard partying by Mark and Jun Suk.

The Consultant has the feel of “a couple months in the life”—just time enough to see everyone’s fortunes change without being able to say for certain “what next.” We begin and end in medias res. Will our jobs still be here tomorrow? Will our relationships? Will we? Heidi Schreck’s play asks us to think about the implications of those questions and the answers that matter.


The Consultant By Heidi Schreck Directed by Kip Fagen

Set Design: Andrew Boyce; Costume Design: Jessica Pabst; Lighting Design: Matt Frey; Composer & Sound Design: Daniel Kluger; Production Stage Manager: Sunneva Stapleton; Casting: Calleri Casting

The Long Wharf Theatre January 8-February 9, 2013