BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
With his latest work, “Sons of the Prophet,” Stephen Karam has created a wise and surprisingly funny play about human suffering.
Commissioned by Roundabout Theatre and opening on Thursday at the company’s Steinberg Center for Theatre, “Sons of the Prophet” offers an absorbing story, some fine acting and a handsome production.
The contemporary story regards two Lebanese-American brothers who are having a miserable time in their Northeastern Pennsylvania hometown. Both Joseph, who is 29, and Charles, 18, are gay but their sexuality is fairly incidental to their troubles.
The recent death of their dad – due to a freakish accident that has set their small town buzzing — and the increasing infirmity of their cranky uncle Bill are among their woes. What’s more, Joseph, once a champion runner, is being plagued by debilitating pains in his knees that doctors cannot diagnose.
Lately Joseph has worked as an assistant to the extremely needy Gloria, an erstwhile publisher with a tragic past and current substance abuse issues. When Gloria discovers that the brothers are distant descendants of Kahlil Gibran, the bestselling inspirational author of “The Prophet,” she smells a book that might mean her professional comeback.
Complications regarding the father’s demise, Gloria’s interference in the brothers’ lower-middle class lives, the uncle’s decline and Joseph’s worsening condition are among the developments too numerous to detail here. Karam renders it all speedily, naturally and often humorously, making flavorful use of the brothers’ Lebanese heritage and their small town circumstances.
Gibran’s philosophical thoughts – alternately profound or glib – also figure into the playwright’s compassionate look at everyday people struggling with pain and sorrow.
Peter DuBois, the director, gives the play a well-nuanced production that easily mingles its serious and comical natures. Set designer Anna Louizos, and lighting designer Japhy Weideman, provide understated and appropriate visuals. Costume designer Bobby Frederick Tilley II dresses the ensemble in clothes that aptly reflect the characters.
Excellent performances bring the characters to life. Believable as brothers, Santino Fontana’s sober, anxious Joseph contrasts with Chris Perfetti’s gaily twink-ish Charles. Yusef Bulos convinces as the crusty uncle. Jonathan Louis Dent, as a high school athlete partly blamed for the father’s death, and Charles Socarides, as a reporter covering the local story about it, give solid performances, as does Dee Nelson and Lizbeth Mackay in several roles apiece. Mackay is particularly lovely in the play’s quietly touching concluding scene.