Sons of the Prophet can't live on laughs
Sons of the Prophet at the Calderwood Pavilion (through May 1)
Stephen Karam's Sons of the Prophet, which the Huntington is producing at the Calderwood Pavilion (through May 1), is a prime example of the kind of contemporary playwriting that's currently popular in regional theaters. It's a glibly amusing play that pretends to address a number of subjects the audience can be counted on to care about but doesn't develop any authentic ideas and substitutes speechmaking for dramatic action. It's hip on the surface, but by the end, that surface has melted away to reveal the sentimentality of an inspirational TV movie.
The subject is how we deal with pain when it's piled on almost too deep to be plausible. The protagonist, Joseph (Kelsey Kurz), is a gay man in his late 20s from a Lebanese background whose promising career as a runner was sidelined by a leg injury that has worsened to the point where he fears he may have MS. He works as personal assistant to a drug-addled, disgraced editor named Gloria (Joanna Gleason) whose interfering personality drives him crazy, but he can't quit because she pays his health insurance. (It's not clear why a smart, articulate 29-year-old can't get another job with health benefits.) Joseph and his teenage brother, Charles (Dan McCabe), also gay, have just lost their father — their only remaining parent — to a heart attack that may or may not have been brought on when his car collided with a deer decoy placed on the highway as a prank by a high-school football player (Jonathan Louis Dent). The brothers have taken in their ailing uncle (Yusef Bulos), who isn't sympathetic when the player, a black foster kid, comes around begging them to help him defer his punishment until after the championship game.
The title alludes to the boys' family link to Kahlil Gibran; one of Charles's aids in dealing with the loss of his dad is to seek messages from beyond the grave through imagined textual links between The Prophet and The Book of Mormon. The Gibran connection sets Gloria's mind racing: she's always looking for a new project that will reinstate her career. She even manipulates Joseph into agreeing to write a book about his family tragedy. A much-covered local-news phenomenon, the story of the collision has drawn the interest of Gloria's estranged reporter son, Timothy (Charles Socarides), who becomes Joseph's lover until he turns out to be insensitive and self-interested — conveniently for Karam, whose wobbly dramatic structure requires a bad apple for Joseph to toss out of his life.
Karam could have a career writing television sit-coms; he has a skillful way with a one-liner. But the character writing is inert, and Peter DuBois's staging is so stiff and awkward that for most of the first half, the actors seem worse than they are. (Bulos, as the lecturing uncle, is truly awful — he overenunciates his lines as if he were reciting elocution lessons.) The ones who come off best are Gleason, who's a pro at playing hyperconscious neurotics with a high comedy spin, and Socarides, who manages to approach the role of the reporter with an easygoing naturalism.
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