Theater J’s first triumph of the season was Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ semi-autobiographical Queens Girl in the World. Its second is also loosely autobiographical: Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet—a very funny play that’s seriously about suffering.
The play takes place about eight years ago in a burb in Pennsylvania. The main character, 29-year-old Joseph, is beset by multiple misfortunes: the recent death of his father following a car accident, the deterioration of his aging uncle for whom he is primary caregiver, the clinically unhinged woman who is his boss, plus his own cluster of physical afflictions, including chronic pain and some mysterious symptoms that require him to have an excruciating spinal tap center stage. Chris Dinolfo plays him with fit, fine, and winning flair. Yet given all the adversities piled on Joseph in the script, the character could be mistaken for a millennial’s Job lite.
“If only I knew what problems were headed my way,” Joseph laments at one point.
But the context for Joseph’s tribulations is a rich vein of comedy with which Karam has infused this extraordinary play. Time and time again, the human pulse of its humor reaches out and touches us, or catches in our throat. Within this improbably funny framework, the more Dinolfo makes Joseph’s inner torment transparent, the more he makes us care. And the more we care about his character, the more we want him to have a crack at the play’s catchphrase:
“All is well.”
That oft-quoted maxim is from The Prophet, the mega-selling book by Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran. As it happens Joseph works in publishing as editorial assistant to a manic book packager named Gloria (played by Brigid Cleary so flamboyantly funny and deranged she steals every scene she’s in). When Gloria learns that Joseph, also Lebanese-American, is remotely related to Gibran—by barely a twiglet on the family tree—she tries to get him to write a fictional memoir about all the “sons of the prophet” in his family.
Among those dubiously dubbed sons is Joseph’s father, who when the play begins with the blast of a crash has just died after a horrid nighttime car accident that may have precipitated a fatal heart attack. The crash was caused by a local high school football player who put a decoy deer into the middle of the road as a prank. Another so-called son is Joseph’s father’s aged brother, Bill (a gruff and affecting Michael Willis), who is in physical decline and increasingly a burden to Joseph. Also living at home is Joseph’s teenage bother, Charles (a buoyant and impish Tony Strowd Hamilton), who was born with one ear so is half hearing impaired. Joseph and Charles now have no parents (their mother predeceased their father). As it happens both brothers are gay.
Happily the brothers’ being gay does not count as one of their woes; instead in Karam’s rendering it leads to a delightful encounter for each. A reporter for a local TV station named Timothy tracks down Joseph intent on getting the scoop out of him about the Gibran nonstory. Turns out Joseph and Timothy were both runners on rival teams when they were in high school. Turns out Timothy too is gay. What starts for Joseph as an unwanted ambush by a nosy newshound begins to feel like a wanted hookup with a fellow former jock (Sam Ludwig as Timothy plays the sexual segue credibly and appealingly).
The football player who set the fake deer in the road, Vin, arrives to express his sympathy and remorse to the family. Vin is a hunky lunk, a bit dim but his sincerity runs deep (Jaysen Wright’s tenderly tentative performance in the role is heartbreakingly poignant). Charles is soon smitten with Vin, and they have a sweet boy-crush scene together upstairs, on an upper level of Luciana Stecconi’s minimalist and nonspecific yet striking all-gray set.
A school board meeting is called to determine whether to prevent Vin from playing football anymore as punishment for his lethal stunt. Two dizzy board member dames (played adroitly by Vanessa Bradchulis and Cam Magee) have some hilarious comedic bits. Then Vin takes the podium to give his speech of contrition—and suddenly the scene is a lump-in-throat moment.
Karam has said he used a lot of his own life in this play (though it’s not strictly speaking autobiographical): Like Joseph, Karam grew up gay in a Lebanese-American family in Pennsylvania; he ran cross-country; he worked in book publishing as an editorial assistant; he has had to have a spinal tap; he has lost relatives in sudden deaths… What is so impressive about Sons of the Prophet in performance at Theater J is that every laugh has a ring of human truth, and every note that could easily have sounded simply like sorrow has been set to a sweeping score of hope and uplift.
I cannot say I know how Karam did it. But I can say for certain that Director Gregg Henry has conducted that score like a masterwork, and the cast has played each part masterfully, on a stage superbly augmented by, among others, Sound Designer Patrick Calhoun, Lighting Designer Kyle Grant, and Costume Designer Collin Ranney.
Theater J’s Sons of the Prophet combines comedy and tragedy with a spellbinding originality of voice and vision. This show is a rare one. All is not only well…it’s wonderful.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.
Sons of the Prophet plays through December 20, 2015 at Theater J at The Washington DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street, NW, (16th and Q Streets), in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 494-8497, or purchase them online.