I often say that I don't like anything but it's not true. Every once in a while there is a play or a movie that I really like and want to shout about from the rooftops.
I am happy to report that I really liked Sons of the Prophet as both a work that struck me emotionally and entertained as well. It's a new play by Stephen Karam playing at the Roundabout. It stars Santino Fontana (who I only knew from Oscar Wilde's Jersey Shore) and Joanna Gleason.
The play is about a man, Joseph Douaihy (Fontana), a twenty-nine year old Lebanese-American living in Bethlehem, PA, who works for a crazy woman (Gleason) as her assistant. His father dies after a freak car accident and Joseph and his younger brother try to put their lives back together while dealing with their elderly uncle and the aforementioned crazy woman.
Despite what could be arguably the set-up for a sitcom, this play is really about the choices we make in life, the influence of our parents, our backgrounds, and how people cope when their lives starts to fall apart. It's a dark comedy and arguably could be viewed as a dark family comedy. Despite the challenges the characters face, the playwright mines these situations for all the humor he can find. The performers and the writer have made this material feel rich and complex. These are not caricatures. Each is a fully-formed character and even if they are only present for a scene or two they come to life and I walked away feeling like I knew exactly who that person was (even reminding me of people in my own life). The colorful background characters from the small Pennsylvania town where the story is set added veracity to the material and gave the work a strong sense of place.
It's always a challenge to make a work feel unique, entertaining and yet universal. I thought Karam did just that. I was drawn in by the characters and the story. I was not sure where the plot was going to take us but each character and each struggle resonated with me. From very early on in the play, I was emotionally invested in these characters and their struggles.
The writer spends time exploring the background of the Lebanese family. This gave the play a unique and distinct flavor. But it was not so specific that it was difficult to relate to. I found it rang true for immigrant families generally and specifically with respect to tensions between the generations of immigrant families.
Fontana was very funny and has a challenging job in the role of Joseph. He's barely keeping things together in his personal life when everything is falling apart with his family. He's a private person who is thrust into an uncomfortable public spotlight. He is uncomfortable in his own skin and is struggling with where he is in his life. He's got a younger brother and uncle depending on him and he bears the weight of that dependency. He's got a sharp tongue but a good heart. I thought Fontana brought out the many layers to his character and made him endearing.
Chris Perfetti, as Joseph's younger brother Charles, had fun with his character and the sibling dynamic. Without giving away too much of the plot (that I think is important to discover as the story unfolds), he adds a certain vulnerability to the story and enriches the family dynamic.
Joanna Gleason is sparkling. She's the outsider to all the family drama and her zany-crazy character helps shine a light on how grounded and together the Douaihy family seems in comparison. What could easily be just a wacky over the top performance is gently presented by Gleason. It's full of humor and sadness. She's a delight to watch and I only wish she had had more scenes.
The only cast member who I felt like was not totally on his game with Jonathan Louis Dent. His role is small but I felt like his character and his motivations were the least clear.
I found this production felt very cohesive overall. The sets were very naturalistic. I loved the over-blanketed look of the Douaihy house with its ugly paneled walls, its awkward livingroom toilet and scary saint paintings.
This play is strong, entertaining, funny, moving and rich. I left pondering the characters and their stories. I wish all my theater-going was as fulfilling as this.