“What are the odds?”
It’s a question that is repeated throughout Sons of the Prophet, a marvelous and moving new play by Stephen Karam that opened Thursday at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre.
The question is asked about the various misfortunes that befall the Douaihy family—pronounced du-WHY-hee—of depressed eastern Pennsylvania, the children of Maronite Catholic immigrants from Lebanon. One son, Joseph, a 29-year-old erstwhile track star, is suffering from mysterious illnesses that may or may not be symptoms of M.S.; his younger brother, Charles, still in high school, was born with one ear; their mother died when they were young and their father dies early in the play of a heart attack after a high-school prank gone awry. “The Douaihys have a habit of dying tragically,” Joseph says at one point. “We’re like the Kennedys without the sex appeal.” Also, both brothers are gay, which is not technically a misfortune but can elicit a similar reaction.
But—and, yes, you could see this coming—it must also be asked of this gorgeously written, deeply thoughtful, very funny play, beautifully and lyrically staged by Peter DuBois (on lovely, quietly suggestive sets by Anna Louizos). This month and next are overflowing with starry Broadway openings, but a low-profile offering by a young playwright, with a hugely competent and appealing but mostly unfamous cast, staged at the Roundabout’s subterranean and often sepulchral Off Broadway space, is the best play of the nascent new season—what, indeed, are the odds?
Joseph (Santino Fontana, stolid and affecting), the former runner, had been training for the Olympics, but thanks to his bad knees, he has instead taken a job with Gloria, “a wealthy deranged women” (a spaced-out Joanna Gleason) who provides him with health insurance in exchange for companionship. A widowed, narcissistic former hotshot in the Manhattan literary world, she “fell from grace”—the subtle religious metaphors abound, beginning with the setting in Nazareth, Pa.—after publishing a Holocaust memoir that turned out to be fraudulent. (There are several ripped-from-the-headlines elements here, as if Dick Wolf had created a lesser-known franchise of smart, sensitive Off Broadway plays.)
The Douaihys are descendants (or at least they like to think they are) of Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese-born American immigrant whose 1923 book The Prophet, a collection of inspirational poems, is believed to have made him the third best-selling poet of all time, after Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu. Gloria needs a successful book to restart her career, and she seizes the idea of a Douaihy memoir, Sons of the Prophet. Titles of Gibran’s poems become subtitles for the play, projected onstage before each scene: “On Work,” “On Pain” and so on.
There’s a lot of pain. As Mr. Karam—whose debut Speech & Debate, which I missed, was widely praised four years ago—slowly and elegantly unpacks this layered portrait, we meet other figures in Joseph’s life: the out-and-proud Charles (Chris Perfetti, sassy and sweet in his New York debut), a geography geek whose cheerful sarcasm masks a deep fear about life without parents; Uncle Bill (Yusef Bulos), a devout Maronite dedicated to his family and a cranky old man who’s at least a little bit racist; Vin (Jonathan Louis Dent), the football star who moved a statue of his rival team’s mascot, a deer, onto a road, causing the accident that may or may not have led to Joseph and Charles’ father’s death; and finally Timothy (Charles Socarides), a gay-but-not-out TV reporter (sound familiar?) covering the story.
When a sports-loving local judge delays Vin’s sentence so the boy can finish the football season—”I shouldn’t be doing this, but I’m going to,” the judge prefaces his sentence, in a line ripped from another headline—the family’s indignation seems foreordained. But it turns out there are countervailing arguments: Vin is a nice kid who made a bad decision; he has spent his life in foster care; football is his one chance to get a scholarship to college and improve his life. The play’s climax will be a school-board meeting to decide whether, despite the judge’s leniency, Vin will be allowed to play.
That’s the convincing trick here, that, throughout what transpires, no one is wrong and yet no one is quite right. Joseph is a beleaguered older brother, trying to take care of his family while trying to take care of himself, but he’s also using all of that to avoid engaging with the world. Timothy, the reporter with whom he has a flirtation, genuinely wants to help Joseph, but also wants to get the story. Uncle Bill worked hard and hates to see himself disintegrating; he’s also a racist. Gloria, the comic relief, is self-absorbed and self-pitying, but she is also trying, in her own way, to help.
Sons of the Prophet touches on so much: family and obligation; sickness and health; health care and employment and the decline of industrial America; immigration and racism; media’s glass closet; even the fickle pressures of book publishing. (Gloria ends up with a huge deal for a book on her breakdown; Charles and Joseph end up with a small one for their geography mnemonics.)
But the real triumph is its characters, all compellingly drawn and superby acted. “All the characters are equally human,” Mr. Karam instructs in a note in the script. They are, and they make for a wonderful, very human play.
Follow Jesse Oxfeld via RSS.