By Lucy Komisar
Nathan Louis Jackson’s play about a black family in Kansas City struggling to achieve a middle class life avoids the pitfalls of sitcom due largely to the four accomplished actors and director Thomas Kail, who breathe life into what on its face is a rather predictable story.
It hangs on whether Malcolm King (an appealing Alano Miller), who has managed to get a masters degree in Connecticut, will give up chances of a good university teaching job under his mentor, an environmental professor, or will he stay home to care for his father William (a warm-spirited Wendell Pierce) who has muscular dystrophy.
Brother Ennis (a complex Francois Battiste) challenges him to make the sacrifice. Ennis, who is stuck in the working class, has his hands full with a wife and new baby which he must support with a restaurant job. Ennis jokes that he has developed the science of broke-ology, the study of being broke. The play is as much an examination of the science – or art — of being a family. That involves juggling loyalty to your family and loyalty to oneself.
Their mother Sonia (an effervescent Crystala Dickinson) died 15 years ago of cancer. She had given up her dreams of being an artist and leaving the neighborhood for the arty part of town, to take care of her family. She reappears from time to time in William’s thoughts.
So will Malcolm give up his dreams? Will he stay in a neighborhood where the house still has bars on the door and windows, or strike out for middle-class success?
Some of the story is corny, as when William talks to a stone gnome the boys have filched from a neighbor’s yard. And most of it is telegraphed. Still, there is definite charm at work, and even as you figure out what is going to happen, the players make you care about their characters.
Broke-ology. Written by Nathan Louis Jackson. Directed by Thomas Kail. Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center Theater, 165 West 65th Street, New York City. 212-239-6200. Opened October 5, 2009, Closes November 22, 2009.