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Shakespearean actor comfortable in 'Vengeance is the Lord's'

Jules Becker | 11/30/2010, 6:22 p.m.

Great British actors like Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole have been as comfortable tackling supporting roles as lead parts through their long on-going careers.

So it goes with American veteran Johnny Lee Davenport, arguably one of the Boston area’s finest thespians. For many years, the 60-year-old Ayer-based African American  actor has been making the rounds of Shakespearean repertoire.

Not surprisingly, Davenport’s playbill biography reads like a Who’s Who of the Bard’s great tragedies, histories and comedies. Now he has taken on a small but pivotal role in Huntington Theatre Company’s latest effort, an urban family drama by Bob Glaudini called “Vengeance is the Lord’s.”

Set in a present day large house in an outer borough of an unspecified big city, “Vengeance” brings Davenport’s character, Parcel Sytes, to the door of the family in question — the Horvaths — during the latter part of the first act.

“I’m disoriented. I’m dazed,” he noted speaking of Parcel  in a recent interview with the Banner.

Understandably Sytes suffers from trauma and aftershock. “My son has just been killed in front of me,” he said. “I realize something is not right.”

While this is Davenport’s sole scene, it serves as catalyst for what happens later, he explained. “I know that it (the scene) changes the dynamic of the family.”

As Glaudini makes clear during Parcel’s encounter with Horvath patriarch Mathew — played by Larry Pine (“Carol Mulroney” at Huntington) — and his older son Woodrow — played by Lee Tergesen (Off-Broadway’s “The Exonerated” and HBO’s “Oz”) —  he has questions.

The time is a very chilly Thanksgiving Eve. “I‘ve walked in after the dinner,” he says — a very long walk in fact.

Parcel, invited in to their home — a wonderfully detailed house from veteran designer Eugene Lee — sits in the armchair Mathew uses during the play. “I think my son is innocent, “ Davenport  said of Parcel’s first time offender son, who was accused of stealing a car in the play’s back story and “shot going for a cell phone,” which the police claimed they thought was a gun.

There is a clear parallel between Parcel and Mathew, who believes that his late daughter Cheryl never went willingly with the man who murdered her. The big question, as the first act ends, is whether Parcel’s questions will spiral into an investigation of the corrupt business practices of the Horvaths.

Davenport was excited not only about the Huntington role, but also about becoming busier in the Hub theater scene.

“This is a wonderful respite for me, and I’ve never worked at the Huntington before,” he said of his break from work at such estimable regional companies as Trinity Rep (“Richard III” and “A Raisin in the Sun”), Shakespeare and Co. (“Hamlet and Macbeth”) and even Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Canada (“King Lear and “Twelfth Night”).

Davenport called his scene “pretty electric” and praised Peter DuBois’ direction.

“I am really awed at how he’s getting to the subtleties of the writing,” he said.

Davenport added that he was enjoying the playwright’s “tight piece of writing.”

After Huntington, he heads to Company One’s upcoming production of “Neighbors” at the Boston Center for the Arts and then to the Lyric Stage Company of Boston for the area premiere of the acclaimed Off-Broadway play “Brokeology.”

No stranger to the Hub, Davenport has worked with Actors’ Shakespeare Project (“Much Ado About Nothing”) and  Commonwealth Shakespeare Company (“As You Like It” ) .

“I’m excited about being here,” he concluded. “I’m trying to get known as a local actor.”