Four years ago, Boston audiences were alerted to the emergence of a talented, inventive, and fearless playwright when Company One presented an incendiary satire titled “Neighbors,’’ by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, then only in his mid-20s.
Jacobs-Jenkins, who is African-American, deployed offensive racial stereotypes in “Neighbors’’ — including a family of minstrel performers who move in next door to a mixed-race couple — to force audiences to confront the ways contemporary identity can be polluted by the toxic legacy of racism.
That legacy takes concrete form in Jacobs-Jenkins’s “Appropriate,’’ now receiving its New England premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company, when the white Lafayette family, gathered in the dilapidated home of their late father on a former Arkansas plantation, discovers a scrapbook full of grisly photos of dead black people, their necks broken, apparently the victims of lynching.
This raises inescapable questions about who the family patriarch really was. His middle-age children disagree on what to do with the photos, ratcheting up the emotional temperature in a brood that is pretty dysfunctional to begin with. Old grudges start to surface. A collective meltdown seems inevitable.
Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara, the SpeakEasy production showcases Jacobs-Jenkins’s gift for devising an imaginative conceptual framework around the message that we’re all haunted by history, try to bury it though we might. But on balance “Appropriate’’ is not as satisfying as “Neighbors.’’
Though the action quickens considerably in Act Two, too much of the play’s impact is diluted by protracted squabbling among characters who are not sharply drawn and not all that compelling, however archetypal they are meant to be. When that climactic meltdown arrives, the stakes don’t seem as high as they should.
The three Lafayette siblings who become locked in conflict are Toni (Melinda Lopez), Bo (Bryan T. Donovan), and Franz, nee Frank (Alex Pollock). Lopez brings a walking-wounded air of spiritual depletion to her characterization of Toni, who, divorced with a teenage son, had been thrust into the role of caregiver for their father during his illness, is bitter about it, and is insistent that the old man was not the bigot those photos suggest he was.
In his portrayal of Franz, the prodigal son, estranged from Toni and Bo — who well recall his odious behavior years earlier — Pollock does a variation on the twitchy-outsider persona he has virtually patented. It is Franz who points out that the Lafayette house is located not just near the family burial plot but also the area where slaves were interred in unmarked graves.
Donovan finds traces of humanity in Bo, a blustering know-it-all who is furious that Toni has planned an estate sale (or, as he calls it, “a junk sale’’) rather than the more lucrative step of auctioning off the house and their father’s belongings together.
Ashley Risteen and Tamara Hickey are quite good in one-dimensional roles as Franz’s hippie-ish but shrewd girlfriend, River, and Bo’s earnest wife, Rachael, who has little difficulty envisioning her husband’s father as a racist, having heard him make an anti-Semitic remark about her. Also delivering solid performances are Eliott Purcell as Toni’s son, Rhys, and Katie Elinoff as Cassidy, the daughter of Bo and Rachael. Cassidy is eerily unperturbed by the gruesome photos, and, indeed, her first instinct is to try to capture them on her smartphone.
While adding up-to-date touches like that to the conventions of the family drama, playwright Jacobs-Jenkins also toys with the tropes of the ghost story. The two-tiered set designed by the talented Cristina Todesco creates a suitably gothic aura, from the slightly tilted chandelier that hangs overhead in the Lafayette house to the hole-riddled walls to the odds and ends that whisper of bygone days, such as a child’s rocking chair.
“Appropriate’’ contains elements or thematic echoes of “August: Osage County’’ and “God of Carnage’’ as well as such classic family dramas as “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’’ and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night’’ (though no one onstage exerts a magnetic hold on our attention the way that Maggie the Cat and Mary Tyrone do).
Still, it’s impossible not to admire the ambition and skill of Jacobs-Jenkins, who poses hard questions while eschewing easy answers. He reminds us that when the subject is the past, there is always more to the story.
Play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.
Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara.
Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company, at Roberts Studio Theatre
Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts
Through Oct. 10.