Nathan Louis Jackson’s play is called “Broke-ology,” defined by one of its characters as “the study of being broke.” The three surviving members of the King family are this science’s pioneering researchers — Ennis (the founding brokeologist) struggles to provide for his new family; William can’t afford his multiple sclerosis; and Malcolm must decide whether to continue his life in Connecticut or return to the rathole Kansas City neighborhood where he can care for his father. It’s not just the study but the rules of being broke that Jackson explores — poverty’s internal body of harsh laws. Broke-onomy, perhaps.
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. Mostly, Malcolm seems defined by his brother and father, most alive when William does an impression of him or Ennis leaps to argue with him.
Pierce is wonderful. This is an actor, after all, who, in one scene on HBO’s “The Wire,” conducted an entire CSI-episode’s-worth of deduction using only the word “fuck.” Here, he plays a worryingly perfect character perfectly: neither saintly nor smug, Pierce gives William the affect of an optimist thwarted at every turn — somebody who prides himself on never letting life get him down but is a little out of his depth as a widower sentenced to die very slowly. As he accidentally hurts himself more and more seriously over the course of the play, we really do fear for him.
There’s plenty of crowdpleasing dialogue here for Pierce and Battiste. William gets a lengthy discourse on the implausibility of Santa Claus in which he points out that, aside from the fact Kris Kringle wouldn’t be able to get into the crackhead-proof house, the Crips would shoot him and steal his sleigh for wearing red. Battiste perfectly plays Ennis’ half-jokey swaggering and barely concealed resentment of Malcolm. He also manages to play his character’s complicated jealousy and high-handedness simultaneously when Malcolm suggests putting William in a nursing home. Ennis is right, but for the wrong reasons.
Director Thomas Kail and set designer Donyale Werle work hard to illustrate the verisimilitude Jackson is trying for: characters seem totally at home on Werle’s agreeable shambles of a two-story house, but the patchy lawn creeping up to it suggests real menace, as do the barred windows and the heavy black metal screen door. This is clearly a good place inside a bad place.
Ultimately, Jackson may have set himself an impossible task in trying to solve William’s dilemma without privileging one brother above the other. 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.