Who Are We, and What Defines Us? Big Questions on the London Stage

Who Are We, and What Defines Us? Big Questions on the London Stage

Across town at the similarly enterprising Donmar Warehouse, a still-fledgling artistic director, Michael Longhurst, is leaving his own imprint.

Mr. Longhurst has worked across the London theater scene and in New York, where he will head next spring to revive the musical “Caroline, or Change” on Broadway. So it makes sense, given his awareness of an American repertoire unafraid of grappling with issues of race, that he has chosen to program the British premiere of “Appropriate,” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, running through Oct. 5.

A play whose characters are all white, written by an African-American dramatist, “Appropriate” shares with “The Doctor” a desire to subvert preconceptions, starting with a title that works on multiple levels. It’s not long before you note the inappropriate behavior that defines a family gathered in a onetime Arkansas plantation to mourn the death of an unseen patriarch whose racism is revealed with gathering toxicity. (The mother, Toni, a woman as rattled as she is lonely, provides a gift of a role for the 2019 Olivier Award-winner Monica Dolan.) Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins, too, knowingly appropriates any number of previous plays and playwrights: the Southern family in meltdown directly recalls Tracy Letts’s “August: Osage County” while the spooky tilts toward the supernatural evoke many an August Wilson play, with Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and Chekhov among others who come to mind.

Ola Ince, the production’s fast-rising director, manages to find both comedy and ferocity in a play that touches upon pedophilia, alcoholism and the legacy of slavery, as the generations of the Lafayette family raise their intemperate voices above an ominously escalating chorus of cicadas. (The invaluable sound design is by Donato Wharton.)

Fly Davis’s cunningly shape-shifting set rattles its timbers at the climax, as a chandelier, among other things, falls to the stage floor: The scenery, you sense by then, isn’t the only thing in Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’s troubled and troubling landscape that is falling apart. Heaven help us all.

The Doctor. Directed by Robert Icke. Almeida Theater, through Sept. 28.
Appropriate. Directed by Ola Ince. Donmar Warehouse, through Oct. 5.

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