by Stephen Karem
Directed by Peter DuBois
Featuring Santiago Fontana, Joanna Gleason and Yusef Bulos
A Production of The Roundabout Theatre Company
at the Laura Pels Theatre

Reviewed by David Spencer

If you really think about it, a preponderance of comedy is built around suffering in one form or another—but in Sons of the Prophet, playwright Stephen Karem has decided to examine suffering specifically, by piling it on  his hero, a young, gay Lebanese-American man, Joseph (Santiano Fontana).

               Formerly a runner, Joseph is now enduring a shortage of cartilage in his knees and several other thus-far undiagnosable symptoms. His father has recently died of a heart attack following a car accident that was the result of a college students’ prank, leaving Joseph to be the guardian of his likewise gay teenage brother Charles (Chris Perfetti) who is deaf in one ear; and the guardian of his ailing septuagenarian Uncle Bill (Joseph Bulos), though without being too obvious about it, because Bill needs to maintain the illusion of his independence. Joseph works for a small publishing company, a part-time job he took on solely because of the health-insurance benefits, where his boss, Gloria (Joanna Gleason) is pressuring him to allow her to develop a book about his family and its lineage (they are distantly related to the prophet Kahlil Gibran), so that she can get back into the mainstream publishing game. And she herself is not a little unstable, having endured a breakdown following the suicide of her husband.

               Then there’s dealing with Vin (Jonathan Louis Dent) the basically good kid who, on a dare, put the fake deer in the road that caused the car crash in the first place—and deciding whether or not to ruin the poor African-American kid’s life by urging the high school board to deny him the sports participation that would earn his college scholarship. Add a mercenary young gay reporter to the mix (Charles Socarides), who is looking to make his bones on a story about the turmoil surrounding Joseph’s family and not averse to  making Joseph’s bones in the process.

               Sons of the Prophet has garnered enormous enthusiasm in the critical press, by and large. I’m not quite as enthusiastic in the sense that I don’t think it’s a great play (at least for me, it hasn’t the poetic or thematic reach, or that indefinable you-know-it-when-you’re-witness-to-it resonance of greatness)…it's ”just” a very good one. Very good in that playwright Karem has indeed found a knife-edge balance between real pain and the real comedy that can be embedded in it, and demonstrates so by dramatizing the ways in which people, through anger, forbearance, compromise, impulse and desperation, can somehow still reach toward the light and endure. And the very-goodness is supported by a production in which, under Peter DuBois’ nuanced and low-key direction, the pile-up of misfortune doesn’t seem like a dramatic contrivance, just the consequence of living through one of those periods of adjustment—we all go through them—in which, for whatever reason or no reason, stuff happens. And it’s greatly to the production’s advantage in turn that the ensemble contains actors who understand that the key to finely-tuned comedy is playing the truth rather than the joke…Mr. Fontana and Ms. Gleason in particular are masters of the game.

               And whatever else one can say about suffering, this much is certain: “Great” is a boon, when it shows up. But “very good” never hurts either…

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