By Harry Forbes
Three siblings arrive at a dilapidated Arkansas plantation after their father's death to settle his estate, and long festering familial issues arise, further complicated by the discovery of some disturbing and highly charged artifacts found in the house. Such is the premise of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ provocative, absorbing and frequently very funny play, first seen at the Signature Theater Company in 2014. A spectacular riff on the great family dramas of the stage, like “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and “August: Osage County,” Jacobs-Jenkins turns the genre on its ear and makes the dysfunction in those earlier works seem mere child's play.
Sarah Paulson, long absent from the stage while delivering memorable performances on TV series like “American Horror Story,” plays eldest sibling Toni. Now divorced, she had been the principal caregiver for the father during his lengthy decline, after years of propping up her deeply troubled teenage son Rhys (Graham Campell) and earlier, her ne’er-do-well, now estranged brother Franz (Michael Esper).
The latter has now shown up unexpectedly with his New Agey girlfriend River (Elle Fanning, very fine in her Broadway debut). Seemingly unflappable brother Bo (Corey Stoll) later arrives from New York with his wife Rachael (Natalie Gold), and precocious young daughter Cassidy (Alyssa Emily Marvin) and son Ainsley (Lincoln Cohen at my performance).
The play’s title can be taken both as an adjective (as in suitable) and verb (as in take). Was the late patriarch a racist, as the discovery of the aforementioned artifacts, not to mention Jewish daughter-in-law Rachael's assertions at one point, suggest? Or if he was casually racist in a manner that was considered "acceptable" for an earlier generation? But then, what of those artifacts? No matter how they happened to be in the house, the family seems to have no compunctions about appropriating them for their monetary value, despite their heinous origins?
Toni has become bossy and embittered from years of toiling on behalf of her ailing father, and Paulson makes an impressive meal of the role, giving a dynamic and commanding performance. But all the performances are spot-on perfect, and Jacobs-Jenkins has given each character at least one, if not several, juicy moments.
The highly atmospheric set is designed by the multidisciplinary collective known as dots, with Jane Cox’s lighting complimenting it beautifully. Bray Poor and Will Pickens’ sound design adds mightily to the visuals including the deafening roar of cicadas which fill the theater during scene changes. In fact, all three elements combine for a rather spectacular coup de theatre during the play’s climax.
Lila Neugebauer’s direction is ever taut and attuned to all the shifting nuances of Jacobs-Jenkins’ text with its unfailingly funny, intelligent and razor sharp dialogue.
The play runs a generoous 2 hours and 40 minutes, and grips you throughout. Highly recommended.
(The Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street; 2ST.com; through March 3)
Photo by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Michael Esper, Corey Stoll, Sarah PaulsonPrint this post