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STAGE REVIEW

A wealth of fine acting

Davenport shines in ‘Broke-ology,’ a tale of tough times, social politics, and love of family

Patrice Jean-Baptiste and Johnny Lee Davenport in Lyric Stage Company’s “Broke-ology.’’ Patrice Jean-Baptiste and Johnny Lee Davenport in Lyric Stage Company’s “Broke-ology.’’ (Mark S. Howard)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / March 29, 2011

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When we first see William King, the ebullient, hard-working family man at the center of “Broke-ology,’’ he is such a larger-than-life figure that his house seems barely able to contain him.

Although William (Johnny Lee Davenport) and his pregnant wife, Sonia (Patrice Jean-Baptiste), are barely scraping by financially, living in a tough neighborhood in Kansas City in the early 1980s, they have big dreams.

As they cuddle on their couch, Sonia sketches a vision of their future, of “children that grow up to be wise and live lives that make us proud. And we all live together in a big beautiful house. Not this one. A really big one in a nice neighborhood where you don’t need bars on the window.’’

However, when “Broke-ology’’ suddenly fast-forwards three decades, that same small house has become William’s entire world. His beloved Sonia is long dead, his once-powerful body is wracked by multiple sclerosis, and his two grown sons are struggling to care for their ailing father while coping with the complicated demands of their own lives.

It is precarious balancing act that will have the ring of familiarity to many members of the so-called sandwich generation, whether they are African-American, like the Kings, or not. So, perhaps, will the pincer-like squeeze between obligation and opportunity that generates the dramatic tension in “Broke-ology.’’

The Lyric Stage Company’s production of Nathan Louis Jackson’s unabashedly sentimental play hits home, thanks to a powerhouse performance by Davenport and sensitive direction by Benny Sato Ambush, who shows a delicacy of touch in balancing the poignancy and the humor of “Broke-ology’’ while keeping the production from sliding into sogginess.

William’s two sons are traveling on very different trajectories. The older one, Ennis (robustly played by David Curtis), has remained in Kansas City and played the role of caregiver to their father while working as a cook in a restaurant and preparing to become a father himself.

The baseball cap-wearing Ennis is a talkative, good-natured braggart; he boasts that he has devised a new science, “broke-ology,’’ which consists of “the study of being broke,’’ and has even worked out an equation: “Fried bologna times sidewalk sales plus minimum wage minus health insurance/adequate education equals: Brokeness times being alive. Bam! Broke-ology, baby.’’

The younger brother, Malcolm (Monty Cole), has just returned home after receiving his master’s degree from the University of Connecticut. Though he’s working a summer job with the EPA in Kansas City, an enticing career opportunity is beckoning: an offer to teach at UConn while helping spearhead environmental initiatives in poor neighborhoods. “There’s a big movement going on and I want to establish myself in it,’’ Malcolm tells his father.

So: Stay or go? Join Ennis in caring for their father, whose condition is rapidly deteriorating, or follow his dream? As “Broke-ology’’ proceeds, and Malcolm agonizes, and Ennis begins to chafe at the constraints of fatherhood and the limitations of his own job, tensions flare between the two brothers.

William’s life, meanwhile, becomes a daily routine of shots and pills, offering the playwright a chance to take a few well-aimed shots at the US health-care system. “We got people cloning sheep, making robotic body parts; they can do damn near anything,’’ says Ennis. “But the best they can do for you is give you a bunch of expensive medicine that don’t work?’’

But “Broke-ology’’ turns out to be, at bottom, a love story, and the most piercing moments belong to Davenport. There is both an inextinguishable spark and a sense of abiding loss in his portrayal of William. When Sonia reappears to William in visions (Jean-Baptiste brings a quiet radiance to these scenes, which are skillfully executed by lighting designer Margo Caddell), Davenport makes William’s yearning for her so palpable it cracks the heart.

This fine actor, known for his performances in the works of Shakespeare, has lately been seen to good effect in contemporary plays. He was riveting in a small part as a grieving father in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Bob Glaudini’s “Vengeance Is the Lord’s’’ in November, and shone in the central role in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s “Neighbors’’ at Company One in January. Now, in “Broke-ology,’’ Davenport excels again.

Clearly, he’s on a roll. Can’t wait to see what he does next.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

BROKE-OLOGY

Play by Nathan Louis Jackson

Directed by: Benny Sato Ambush. Sets, Skip Curtiss. Lights, Margo Caddell. Costumes, Mallory Frers. Sound, Chris Bocchario.

At: Lyric Stage Company, through April 23. Tickets: $25-$52. 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com