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Sons of the Prophet
By Elyse Sommer
Besides establishing a sense of turmoil by pointing to Lebanon and Nazareth as names on both Middle Eastern and American maps, Karam further connects these far apart locations. It turns out that the unfortunate driver who dies of a heart attack soon after he crashes into that deer decoy is a Lebanese-American. What's more, this retired steelworker's family is distantly related to Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese-American poet and best selling author of The Prophet.
Mr. Karam has one of the characters in his multi-themed comedy about human suffering disdainfully put down Gibran's poetic sermons with "Never before has bad writing been so richly rewarded." Yet he has cleverly spun off his play's title from Gibran's phenomenally successful book, and used seven of its chapter headings to introduce each scene in his drama about Gibran's descendants, the Douaihys.
While Sons of the Prophet will have you laughing often throughout its close to two intermissionless hours, it's also deeply touching and filled to the brim with serious issues. For Joseph Douaihys (Santino Fontana), the play's central character, losing his father is just one reason he's experiencing a very bad year. The issues he is dealing with extend beyond the boundaries of the personal. This universality is especially evident in Pennsylvania's steel belt whose chief employers like Bethlehem Steel have crashed like Douahiy Senior's car —, making life in that region as problem filled as the Mideastern places for which many of Scranton's surrounding communities are named.
For starters, Joseph, a former competitive runner, has been dogged by an indeterminate chronic pain which involves costly testing and might be caused by something really scary and, with it, even more medical bills. Joseph's father was smart enough to master three languages without a college education and had a steel worker's salary to send his son to college and cover the family's medical bills. However, at 29, Joseph's only marketable skill is word processing (which he knew before college). Jobs with benefits like health insurance and to challenge bright young people are not exactly growing on trees.
The only job Joseph could find to cover his current and potentially escalating medical bills is as the assistant to Gloria (Joanna Gleason), a ditzy rich widow who abandoned being one more lonely New York single woman of a certain age for a business in a less pressured environment. Her first two ventures as a memoir publisher flopped when they proved to be based on lies. She now sees an opportunity in a book about her assistant's family. She's sure that it has best seller potential given the Douihalys' connection to the much in the news Middle East region and the never off the best selling book list Gibran — not to mention the gossip appeal inherent in both Joseph and his 18-year-old brother Charles (Chris Perfetti) being gay.
Adding to Joseph's bad year — dealing with losing his father, his diminished job opportunities and the the high cost of dealing with his undiagnosed chronic pain — there's the embarrassing, though funny in an Archie Bunker-ish way, Uncle Bill (Yusef Bulos). He insinuates himself into his nephews' lives as if they still needed a guardian, though he's actually so physically handicapped that he needs his nephews to care for him, rather than taking a father's place.
As if Bill weren't enough of an extra problem for Joseph to wrestle with, the more openly "out" Charles makes contact with Vin (Jonathan Louis Dent), the deer decoy prankster, through the internet. The family's face-to-face with him in their home and at a town hearing to determine whether he should be allowed to put off serving his sentence for community service in the interest of the college football season serves to deepen rather than lighten the family's pain. That news making hearing does serve to finally bring the hope of love and friendship into Joseph's very inactive social life via Timothy, a Harrisburg reporter. However, this too becomes part of Joseph's Job-like year.
In the hands of a less skillful writer all this grief and suffering would come off as too bloated with plot points and as a thinly disguised polemic. But Karam knows how to convey the feelings and speech patterns of his contemporaries (he's just 2 years older than Joseph and grew up in Scranton), as well as the younger and older characters. His deft merging of humor with sadness and anger is what makes Sons of the Prophet as entertaining and funny as it is touching and thought provoking.
Of course, much credit for making this young playwright's voice resonate so pleasurably belongs to director Peter DuBois and his design team's astute staging and the actors who add depth and dimension to the characters. Santino Fontana gives am emotionally layered performance as Joseph. Karam has written him some wonderfully wry lines like the above quoted "The Douaihys have a habit of dying tragically. We're like the Kennedys without the sex appeal." While some theater goers might find the final scene too ambiguous, Fontana somehow makes it believable and just right.
Joanna Gleason and Yusef Bulos, who also appeared in Boston's Huntington Theater premiere, are terrific, making both the nutty Gloria and the politically incorrect Bill sympathetic Their one scene together, when Gloria arrives unannounced at the Douaihy house and instantly airs her personal griefs to Bill is not only hilarious but effectively underscores how the Glorias of this world are one more way the changes in the cultural landscape of this Pennsylvania steel town have made people like Bill feel obsolete and angry. Chris Perfetti is amusingly appealing as the less intense younger brother and Dee Nelson and Lizbeth Msckay deftly handle several ensemble roles.
If Joseph's father had been around to couch his fatherly advice in paraphrased wisdom from his illustrious relative's book, he would, according to Joseph, tell him to deal with his anxiety about his chronic pain possibly being caused by a devastating assault on his cell system as follows: "You should be happy you have a cell system to attack." To take that paraphrase a step further: Theater goers should be happy that Stephen Karam got away from Scranton to attend Brown University and became a playwright — and that the Roundabout Company has supported his work, first in its tiny black box theater for and now with this lovely production in its larger theater.
Note: We missed Karam's first play Speech and Debate when it lanched the Rondabout's black box for emerging playwrights-- but one of our Los Angeles critics caught up with it when its Roundabout success led to a West Coast premiere. To read that review go here.
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