Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Broke-ology

GRADE: B+

By Nathan Louis Jackson. Directed by Thomas Kail. At the Lincoln Center Theatre's Mitzi E. Newhouse Stage. (CLOSED)

Critics laud the gentle naturalism, humor, and sympathetic characters of Nathan Louis Jackson's Broke-ology and most only crave a more vigorous dramatic development to this timely story about poverty, health, and familial duty. With rare exception (Theatre Mania), the acting, direction, and design receive unqualified kudos, too. By all aesthetic standards, the production seems worthwhile. But since the title refers to "the study of being broke," one has to wonder for which audience this Lincoln Center production is intended. After all, $75 won't pay your health premiums, but it will get you a ticket to watch a Midwestern black family trying to do the same. The critical question seems to be whether this story has the power to dig deeper than a delicate study of poverty for its ostensibly well-off audience.


Associated Press A
(Michael Kuchwara) You probably can see where the play, which opened Monday at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, is going. If the conflict isn't new, Jackson's attempt to deal with some time-honored tribulations is surprisingly sturdy ... Jackson's dialogue is deceptively easygoing, as naturalistic as designer Donyale Werle's crowded and homey kitchen-living room set. And director Thomas Kail lets the play unfold at a leisurely pace. But don't let the evening's initial amiability and often humorous bantering fool you. Within the confines of this cozy setting, desperation is setting in, and Jackson mines it with surprising force.

New York Magazine A
(Stephanie Zacharek) ... Broke-ology is a lot funnier than it is grim, and director Thomas Kail (In the Heights) has made the most of the play’s buoyant spirit, even as he and his actors remain mindful of their characters’ pain ... Grand themes are touched upon, but Jackson’s terrific ear for dialogue keeps the play lively and fluid (one recurring bit has Ennis promising to chant “I love black people!” every time he uses the N-word). The title Broke-ology refers to Ennis’s amateur study of the science of having no money. But Jackson isn’t out to make the African-American Long Day’s Journey Into Night. These people are broke, not broken.

Time Out New York A-
(David Cote) This is the sort of unforced, unpretentious slice-of-life play that critics like me are bound to call “folksy,” with an aftertaste of condescension ... The devices by which most playwrights ratchet up excitement—clan secrets, crime, addiction or basic hatred between characters—are absent. In their place is ample proof that these men love each other and are trying to find a solution to their problems. But is it dramatic? With a cast this likable and with dialogue so free-flowing and humorous, the answer is yes.

Talkin' Broadway A-
(Matthew Murray) His showing how the same circumstances have incredibly different effects on three men from exactly the same background provides a fascinating window into a group that’s often portrayed as a monolithic entity. The play’s few missteps only occur when Jackson steps away from this, even for good reasons. A subplot about the boys kidnapping a neighbor’s garden gnome seems to belong in an entirely different play. And though Sonia is an energetically inspiring character, and the wonderfully vivacious Dickinson plays her with exactly the kind of clear-eyed but laser-focused mischievousness, her constant appearances to William after her death inject too much fantasy into a story that the rest of the time strives to maintain its overall grit. Director Thomas Kail has done commendable work throughout, compressing feelings and words into primed-to-bust packages, but he hasn’t managed to keep Sonia’s imagined resurrections from feeling like distractions.

The New Yorker A-
(John Lahr) What Jackson lacks in poetry and in stagecraft he makes up for in compassion ... Tender emotions are much harder to achieve onstage than pathological ones; it’s a pleasure to see goodness, not hate, dissected. Jackson’s dialogue doesn’t crackle, but it certainly pops with humor. An outstanding cast, which includes Crystal A. Dickinson, Francois Battiste, and Alano Miller, is headed by the poignant Wendell Pierce, as the declining patriarch William King, whose last act of love is to find a way to set his sons free.

Bloomberg A-
(John Simon) Jackson grabs and holds your attention. The dead Sonia is a dubious device, but what goes on among the three other Kings -- prime theater. It is greatly helped by the direction, acting, and Donyale Werle’s eloquent scenery. Thomas Kail elicits expert ensemble acting from a first-rate cast ... Most important, you will be amply rewarded for your patience. It is an evening to relish and long remember.

Variety B+
(Sam Thielman) Jackson, a writer for NBC cop drama "Southland," writes Ennis (Francois Battiste) and William (Wendell Pierce) with so much verve and pathos that passages dominated by one or the other practically sing. Malcolm (Alano Miller) is a more thankless part -- Jackson's efforts to give a reasonable voice to the single upwardly-mobile member of a poor black family fall flat, but it's gratifying at least to see the effort made in a world where Tyler Perry's more simplistic view rules the box office ... The play's final moments, which use the recurring hallucination of William's dead wife Sonia (Crystal A. Dickinson) to take the sting out of a questionable decision, seem to let everyone off the hook in a way that isn't true to the world Jackson has worked so hard to create. But the world itself is one worth exploring.

Village Voice B
(Alexis Soloski) The should-I-stay-or-should-I-go plot structure is grimly formulaic, and some of the scenes sag, but Jackson displays admirable tenderness, aided by Thomas Kail's sensitive direction. The play presents William's failing health as an unsolvable dilemma, but in some of Jackson's best scenes—a vigorous game of dominoes, a dance routine with a garden gnome—the playwright presents having and being a body as simply wonderful.

Backstage B
(David Sheward) Despite the weighty metaphors, this young playwright has created a striking portrait of four people yearning to escape their blighted neighborhood yet caught by necessities and obligations. Director Thomas Kail saves the production from sentimentality by focusing on the gritty reality of the action. Donyale Werle's detailed set is especially helpful here. Strewn with junk food, medicines, and a lifetime's bric-a-brac, this house feels lived in down to the scrubby patch of lawn on the stage's apron. The actors inhabit their roles with as much attention to specifics as the director and the designer display.

New York Post B
(Frank Scheck) What may sound like a downer isn't, thanks to the lively dialogue and episodes involving a giant garden gnome and an impromptu dance to the Temptations' "Just My Imagination." Based on the 30-year-old playwright's own family, the play has a deeply lived-in feel (Donyale Werle did the detailed set), though it fails to be galvanizing.

New York Times B-
(Charles Isherwood) Under the sensitive direction of Thomas Kail, the actors’ warm performances help compensate for the sometimes slack pace of the writing. Mr. Battiste is immensely appealing as Ennis, who is already compensating for the frustrations of his life by drinking a little too much and maybe even chasing after women who don’t plague him with demands. ... Mr. Miller portrays the conflict in Malcolm between his duty to his family and his hopes for himself with an affecting clarity and simplicity. Mr. Pierce (“The Wire”) is also fine as the father who is embarrassed at his physical frailty, but agonized at the thought that he has become a burden to his family, not the bedrock he had hoped to be.

Theatre Mania C-
(Dan Bacalzo) Battiste is the clear stand-out in the cast, capturing the humor of the play while also delving into depths of sadness and despair. Pierce has an engaging presence but doesn't always emotionally connect to the material. Miller plays his part too flatly, which is unfortunate as it's Malcolm's struggle to make a decision about whether to stay or go that is supposed to drive the play's action. Dickinson has the least to work with, but impresses in a scene in which Sonia flat-out tells William that the life she's living is not the one she wanted. Jackson writes engaging dialogue, but doesn't explore his theme of personal desire versus family duty in an interesting enough manner, and the play becomes predictable as the second act winds down. The unsatisfying ending seems particularly clich├ęd, even as it becomes theatrically inevitable.

AP A 13; NY Magazine A 13; Time Out New York A- 12; Talkin' Broadway A- 12; The New Yorker A- 12; Bloomberg A- 12; Variety B+ 11; Village Voice B 10; Backstage B 10; NYPost B 10; NYTimes B- 9; Theatre Mania C- 6. TOTAL: 130/12 = 10.83 (B+)

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