“Sons of the Prophet” comes to Rhode Island with a pretty darn good reputation. Brown University graduate Stephan Karam’s play was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 and did win several awards that year. It was a favorite of Manhattan’s downtown theater crowd, too.
So, what happened?
At 2nd Story this work, which the author calls “a comedy about a guy coping with chronic pain” seems pretty much weak-kneed. Its “comedy” never really clicks; its philosophy, which seems to be that coping with the unspeakable can be nourishing, doesn’t seem real, or true.
The result is a work that tries hard, but falls short.
The play has us look in on a Lebanese-American family living, if that’s the word, in Nazareth, PA. Their lives seem almost completely a tale of woe. The father has just died, possibly from an accident set up by a teenager. Uncle Bill lives in fear and anger over an illness that is bowel-affecting, in a major way. There are two brothers, one 29, the other 18. Both are gay. The family, by the way, is related to the poet/philosopher Kahil Gibran, hence the play’s title.
To his credit, author Karam doesn’t shy away from anything. Uncle Bill’s bowel difficulties are shown in perhaps more detail than most theatergoers may want see. The brother’s struggles are clear. The older has dedicated his life to his athletic prowess; now a knee injury has arrived. There are other medical problems, too. The younger brother is flagrantly gay, and all too unfocused to give you much hope for his future.
Throw in the older brother’s boss, who merely struggles with monumental depression, major alcoholism and considerable despair and you have a full house filled with loss and approaching disaster.
The cast, whose members have done fine work in the past, has a tough time. The always strong Vince Petronio works hard as the bombastic Uncle Bill with moderate success. Jed Hancock-Brainerd doesn’t quite catch the struggles of the older brother in any heart-rending way. Paula Faber, too, takes a while to manage the despair of a Manhattan power lady exiled to small town Pennsylvania.
Playwright Karam tries his best leaven all this with humor. There are occasional chuckles as the brothers battle each other, cope with a dopey boss, endure a deadpan-funny “commander” of a bus station, and get involved with one of those impossible telephone recordings offering a dozen choices but no solutions.
Under direction by one of Rhode Island’s best actors, Wendy Overly, all of this works only moderately well. The cast seems to force the humor with tentative approaches. This production has missed the quicksilver pace that good comedy must have.
That leaves just the sadness running to despair that is at the center of “The Sons of the Prophet.” And that means that empathy for this tragic story is hard to come by.
Want to Go?
“The Sons of the Prophet” continues at 2nd Story Theatre through November 24th.