Appropriately spine-tingling

"Appropriate" production image. Photo: Prudence Upton/supplied.

Review: Appropriate, Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay. By editor-at-large Gary Nunn.

★★★★

Family dysfunction is an understandably popular topic for the stage. It’s almost universally relatable, often riveting and can criss-cross darkness and comedy in that unique way that’s only truly maximised by live performance. 

This production gifts us all these treasures and more – it’s an instant American classic, but it’s also clear why the Sydney Theatre Company’s artistic director Kip Williams transported it here after seeing it in London, and why former Sydney Festival artistic director Wesley Enoch is the perfect fit as director. The themes of truth and reconciliation from past atrocities are explored and even, counterintuitively, made entertaining. That daring creative decision goes to the show’s title, which works on several levels: that of etiquette, but also of ownership; to take possession without consent. Then there’s the appropriateness of relationships: cousin crushes, age gaps, eldest sibling playing in loco parentis. 

In America’s south, the Lafayette family reunites in the weather-worn plantation house owned by their recently deceased father. The three siblings face up to estrangement, addiction, greed, past wrongs and lingering resentment as they decide what to do about their dad’s estate.  

Troubled son Franz – who is returning to the family after a decade away to honour his AA commitment to make amends for past addiction-fuelled wrongs – and his considerably younger hippie girlfriend, River, break in through a window to the alarm and anger of his sister, Toni. Her anger rarely relents and, in fact, escalates as the show progresses. It’s particularly pointed at Rachel, the well-to-do wife of her other brother, Bo – who has a supercilious air which Toni skewers with aggressive panache. The only place her anger doesn’t travel is arguably where it’s most warranted: at her plantation-loving late father.

Attempts are made to shield the grandchildren of the dead patriarch – Rachel and Bo’s two younger children, teenaged Cassidy (played brilliantly by Ella Jacob) and her annoying younger brother Ainsley, and Toni’s delinquent slightly older son, Rhys – from a shocking discovery in the hoards that needs sorting through. Images are found suggesting the Lafayette patriarch was a racist and challenging questions arise: did the pictures belong to him? Was he a product of his generation, or will Toni be forced to remove her rose-tinted spectacles and see Daddy for who he really was?

Appropriate production image. Photo: Prudence Upton/supplied.

The question of what to do with pictures is the dramatic device which punctuates the plot. It’s an effective one, and when a decision is made to sell them for a lucrative sum, the question of what is appropriate comes to a crescendo: when white guilt is pitted against American capitalism, the grotesque rugged individualism facilitated by the dollar wins out almost unanimously. It’s the sole thing to unite the family at war with itself. The only man to attempt to do the right thing – recovering addict Franz – is, ironically, the one most regularly accused of scavenging for his inheritance. He’s no ethical hero, either: an unspeakable past crime is unveiled by Toni, now the family’s matriarch and the self-appointed truth-teller.

This really is the Toni show, and Mandy McElhinney steals it as her own in a career-defining performance. The rare moments she’s off stage, you’re itching for her return so she can puncture more egos by reading them to filth. 

Her only tender moments – with her son, Rhys and one with her brother, Bo – could perhaps have been expanded to when she calls River a “sweet girl”. McElhinney delivers the line with bitterness, but there was space – and need – here for tenderness, after all the fighting. “I think I used to be one of those,” she thunders when really, this could’ve been a lament. 

The underlying theme is authenticity: who is facing up to who they really are? The expletive-averse and immaculate Rachel is pushed by Toni to reveal herself and when the facade slips, it’s an outstanding performance by Lucy Bell.

There are unsatisfactory throwaway moments: Rhys’s emerging sexuality is bewilderingly glossed over and its inclusion feels half-baked.

This is a stinging satire on a country still coming to terms with its racist past and present, penned by an African-American playwright suitably unafraid to go there. The 2 hours, 40 minutes duration of this production flew by – always a good sign.

One thing this show is not, however, is original. Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has said: “I decided to steal something from every play that I liked, and put those things in a play and cook the pot to see what happens.” Having seen August: Osage County on Broadway in 2008, this rings true: the two productions aren’t just cousins, they’re siblings. 

The set is a tenth character in the play, opines Gary Nunn. Photo: Prudence Upton/supplied.

There’s a tenth character in this play, and that’s the stunning set of the decaying house itself. Elizabeth Gadsby’s meticulous design combines with Trent Suidgeest’s lighting to produce something really special. The final moments are eerie yet somehow beautiful, leaving the audience with a feeling that past wrongs, unless properly faced up to, will haunt for generations to come. Spine tingling. 

Appropriate by the Sydney Theatre Company plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, 22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay, until Saturday, 10 April. For tickets ($49–$99) and further info, visit www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2021/appropriate.

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.