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Branden Jacobs-Jenkins Revisits His ‘Illusion of Suffering’ on Broadway

As with so many family reunion plays, the squabbling Lafayette siblings in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s “Appropriate” dislodge their share of skeletons from the closets of their childhood home, a former plantation in southern Arkansas. But here those secrets, hovering over everything and everyone, may be actual skeletons, and worse. The increasingly unsettling revelations power what The New York Times’s Ben Brantley called a “very fine, subversively original new play” at its Off Broadway premiere in 2014 at the Signature Theater.

So subversive and so original that it took almost a decade to reach Broadway. Jacobs-Jenkins, a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient whose works include bold reimaginings of “The Octoroon” and the 15th-century play “Everyman,” got there a bit earlier when he contributed original material to a 2022 revival of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth.” Second Stage’s production of “Appropriate,” which is in previews at the Helen Hayes Theater and opens on Dec. 18, is his first original work on Broadway after nearly a half-dozen New York productions.

As it happens, two of the three actors playing the siblings had their own shared history. Sarah Paulson (“American Horror Story”) and Corey Stoll (“Billions”) were a year apart at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York, but they didn’t work together until Stoll briefly joined the cast of the Paulson-led TV series “Ratched” in 2020. (She fantasized about sawing his leg off during sex, he squashed a leech with his bare hand, and she tried to boil him alive in a hydrotherapy tub — all in the span of two episodes.)

The two actors joined Jacobs-Jenkins and the director, Lila Neugebauer (“The Waverly Gallery,” Jacobs-Jenkins’s “Everybody”), backstage at the Helen Hayes last month to discuss catharsis, sibling rivalry and the tyranny of stage directions. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Michael Esper, Stoll, Natalie Gold and Paulson in the Broadway production at the Helen Hayes Theater in Manhattan.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Lila didn’t direct “Appropriate” Off Broadway, but the two of you have been in each other’s orbit for a while.

BRANDEN JACOBS-JENKINS We actually met at the Humana Festival, where the show premiered in 2013.

LILA NEUGEBAUER I was there with a different play.

JACOBS-JENKINS Shortly after “Appropriate” happened at the Signature, Lila directed a production of it at Juilliard. I just knew instantly that she had grasped something about the undercurrents and the essential energies of the play.

Sarah and Corey, when did you come on board?

SARAH PAULSON I read the play in September of 2021. I hadn’t read anything as complicated and deep and funny in a very, very long time, and I said yes almost immediately.

COREY STOLL Right in the depth of the pandemic, my agent sent me a stack of plays. It was like: “Since you’re not doing anything, I just want you to read all these plays.” And this one was so clearly the one to do.

One character alludes to “the universality of suffering,” but there’s suffering and then there’s suffering. You’ve got these three siblings and all the bad things they’ve done, even criminal things …

PAULSON It’s not me who’s done the criminal things. Write that down.

STOLL Sarah is a real advocate for her character. You [to Paulson] cannot stand people talking ill of her.

PAULSON It’s easy to do when a person isn’t thinking critically or deeply about who she is.

My point is that these actions pale in comparison to the suffering inflicted on the play’s Black characters, whom we never meet. It feels almost like that line of dialogue is trying to level a playing field that ought not be leveled. Am I reading too much into the text?

JACOBS-JENKINS When I wrote it, I was really interested in this writer named Dion Boucicault. He has this essay, “The Art of Dramatic Composition,” where he says the sole purpose of everything in the theater is to create an illusion of suffering that then creates something cathartic in the audience. I believe that everyone onstage is suffering. They all believe they are suffering. But how do we judge — how can we judge — someone else as suffering or not? I think that’s one of the games that the play is trying to get us to play.

Have these ideas also evolved for you, Lila, now that you have directed “Appropriate” twice?

NEUGEBAUER The first time, the play struck me on more theoretical terms. Now I feel more of an invitation to have complicated feelings about these characters. Every character has done something that someone in the audience or someone onstage might feel is questionable or strange or other. Every person walking the planet is the star of their own lives. Therefore, it feels like the thing that’s happening to them is the most significant thing that could ever be happening to anyone.

“The play does a lot of that work in terms of how to create the sibling dynamic,” said Paulson, center, with Alyssa Emily Marvin, left, and Esper.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The presence of siblings can be a pretty quick reminder that there are other people in the world. Is it hard creating that rapport?

PAULSON It doesn’t hurt that we know each other and have worked together, but I would argue that the play does a lot of that work in terms of how to create the sibling dynamic.

STOLL There’s a momentum to the arguments between these two. At first, it just seems like these are two people who despise each other. Then you get to the second act where the whole play downshifts a bit, and we can find an intimacy. Even though that conflict is still very hot, and there is still a whole lifetime of resentment, that intimacy is there.

PAULSON And I want to stress that we are missing Michael Esper, the third end of the triangle, who is wonderful.

I remember Larissa FastHorse said “The Thanksgiving Play,” with its all-white Broadway cast, was a response to what she had been told about who was castable. Young Jean Lee has written great works, and “Straight White Men” was the one to reach Broadway. Now “Appropriate” has an all-white cast. Does this say anything about the American theater today?

JACOBS-JENKINS There’s a phenomenon that’s been written about in academia called the “white life novel.” “Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin is an example. Zora Neale Hurston has a book called “Seraph on the Suwanee.” It’s this thing where Black writers or Black-identified writers will write one thing that’s all white people. I think this is often an experiment in trying to get the viewer or even an industry to own its own blind spots.

I’ve talked a lot about reading The Times’s review of “Stick Fly” by Lydia Diamond, which is an amazing family drama that was critiqued for not being enough about race and class in America and for being melodramatic. And then an equally wonderful play by Tracy Letts called “August: Osage County” was praised for being familiar by the same critic. There was no mention of the way that I think Tracy was actually engaging in very smart ways with whiteness and Indigenous presence. That double standard was very informative to me as a young writer who is constantly asked to do articles for The Times about Black drama.

Honestly, everybody onstage is a political statement. Nobody’s a neutral body. And until you can talk about that, there’s nothing to pat ourselves on the back about as an art form in terms of how we do or don’t deal with these issues. I love Tennessee Williams. I love “The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson. No one calls “The Piano Lesson” a family drama. They call it about the Black experience in America. No one ever talks about “A Raisin in the Sun” as one of our best family dramas. I want to be able to love and own these things equally. And I feel like even this question is part of that continuum of things I have to address that no one else has to address when we make work in America.

Can I ask about the stage directions in the script? They are ——

JACOBS-JENKINS Chaos.

They do sometimes go on for a page and a half. It reminded me of reading Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams.

JACOBS-JENKINS When I started writing this, I was drunk on Williams and O’Neill. The reading experience is different than the experience of seeing the piece in a theatrical space. Your task as a playwright is to light up the things inside of people that lead them to the most electric choice. And that’s just as true for the reader. You’re trying to inspire the reader to bring more than just something schematic or familiar to the script.

And when the script reaches the three of you, do you see those directions as marching orders?

PAULSON It depends. Most of the plays I’ve done have been by people like Tennessee Williams or Lanford Wilson, people who were already dead. I’ll read a Williams stage direction and think, “Is that what Laurette Taylor did? Because I definitely want to do that if she did it.” For me, they can be incredibly evocative and other times they feel almost directorial.

STOLL I tend to bristle against them in film and television because I think they’re often overprescribed, but here I’ve found them to be really helpful. Look, I’m happy with any help I can get.

“At first, it just seems like these are two people who despise each other. Then you get to the second act where the whole play downshifts a bit, and we can find an intimacy,” Stoll said of the characters that he and Paulson portray. Credit…Erik Tanner for The New York Times

How about you, Lila? If they can be overly directorial, where does that leave you?

NEUGEBAUER This is a bit of a spoiler, but there’s a bunch of information in the script about what might happen at the end of the play. I feel that the writer is spell casting with that text. He is giving me and the designers this spectacular provocation to use our imaginations, to make that spell manifest. It’s within the power of our theatrical machinery to show pretty much anything, but everything that happens onstage also has emotional information. It’s not just a literal event.

In other words, Branden, I don’t think they’re listening to you.

JACOBS-JENKINS Actors love to say, “The first thing I do is cross out all the stage directions.” And I’m like, “If we’re in the erasure business, I just take my delete button and now you have nothing to say.”

A lot has happened in the 10 years since “Appropriate” premiered. How has that affected either the play itself or the way you think it will be received?

JACOBS-JENKINS We definitely didn’t transfer to Broadway 10 years ago. So that’s a sign that something has shifted, maybe? The play was originally set in 2011, and there was a big debate about whether to update it. I didn’t think I could, because these people would look like true idiots if they had not paid attention to what everyone else has paid attention to since then.

NEUGEBAUER I do think there has been a semi-mainstreaming of a certain degree of race consciousness in America that would make the events in this play not quite make sense if it were set in 2023. My suspicion is that audiences will bring a somewhat more nuanced vocabulary to it now. They have a different tool kit. And that’s going to be very interesting.

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