by Nathan Louis Jackson
Directed by Thomas Kail
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre
at Lincoln Center

Reviewed by David Spencer

Despite coming highly touted from the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Broke-ology is a mild and minor family drama. It's not that author Nathan Louis Jackson is ungifted—there are native abilities at play: some of the dialogue and characterization are delivered with sensitivity—nor are the issues unworthy of dramatization. Check ‘em out:

                        The story, featuring a lower-middle income African American family, sets up a classic dynamic. Dad William King (Wendell Pierce) is suffering from MS and a wonky ticker. His condition is deteriorating, along with his ability to care for himself, which becomes the purview of his two grown sons: Ennis (Francois Battiste) the eldest by a year or so, chained to this Kansas inner city neighborhood by his additional responsibilities to provide for a wife and baby on a cook’s meager salary; and Malcolm (Alano Miller), a college student with aspirations and a bright future awaiting him in Connecticut. Ennis can’t care for Pop alone, and Malcolm can’t pitch in equally without pitching his chances to better himself. And the situation is becoming more dire, with Dad getting more and more forgetful, even at times convinced that the spectre of his late wife, the boys’ mother (Crystal A. Dickinson) is real. No choice can be made without painful compromise and devastating emotional repercussions, yet the three men try desperately to hang in and preserve family cohesion and unity.

                        Universal, real subject matter resonant beyond the constraints of the socio-economic and ethnic setting. Yet with powerful impact within too. Problem is Mr. Jackson delivers the goods at a rudimentary level. First act exposition is transparent, as conversation after conversation, bereft of significant conflict, is informed by backstory reminiscence; a stolen-borrowed “lawn gnome” is used as permission for Dad to deliver revealing monologues to “us” (without breaking the fourth wall) that he can’t deliver to the boys; and the outcome of the story is quaintly telegraphed early on (but I won’t reveal the play’s own spoiler here). The play seems like the product of a gifted student who still hasn’t learned how to use, and at times camouflage, basic principles of craft.

                        Thomas Vail, who skillfully directed In the Heights, has done a nice, neat job here, and elicited good, solid performances from the cast. And that full-heart conviction helps considerably. But not, ultimately, quite enough. Broke-ology still requires some essential, internal fix-ology to fulfill its potential…

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