According to Carol Burnett's oft-quoted epigram, comedy is tragedy plus time. That witticism has held up for more than 20 years, though today I would excise the "plus time" part. In the age of Twitter, tragedy instantaneously becomes comedy. "Too soon" is too quaint a complaint: Comedy and tragedy always have and always will coexist.
In playwright Stephen Karam's arresting Pulitzer Prize finalist Sons of the Prophet, whenever a character collapses in tears or explodes in vitriol, the moment is followed within seconds by a laugh line. You could argue these sudden lurches into levity are the playwright's defense against difficult emotions, but I think they confirm Karam's understanding of the connection between tragedy and comedy, localness and globalness, celebration and exploitation, and vengefulness and redemption — converging opposites the play so astutely explores. There is no underlining or telegraphing the revelations about these subjects; Karam lets us draw our own conclusions.
Sons of the Prophet is receiving a cool, sophisticated, and seemingly flawless southeastern premiere at GableStage, where it epitomizes the brand of comically potent domestic drama the theater has focused on this season. Michael Focas, who played the tortured young bicyclist in GableStage's 4000 Miles earlier this year, returns to lead this cast. He plays Joseph Douaihy, the scion of a Lebanese-American family living in the symbolically intimidating town of Nazareth, in eastern Pennsylvania. He's gay but semicloseted, preferring lumberjack-style checkered shirts to the vivid attire of his flamboyantly out brother, Charles (Michael Kushner). A former marathon runner, Joseph has been sidelined due to knee pain that has been metastasizing, inexplicably, across his body.
Sons of the Prophet
Sons of the Prophet: Through October 20 at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables; 305-445-1119; gablestage.org. Tickets cost $37.50 to $42.50.
The play opens with a video-projected reenactment of their father's recent accident; he died shortly after swerving to avoid a deer decoy on a local road. Noting the family patriarch wasn't the only Douaihy to die before his time, Karam tempers the moment with a customary joke, from Joseph: "We're like the Kennedys, without the sex appeal." With their mother also deceased, the two sons now live with their uncle Bill (George Schiavone), a bitter, wheelchair-bound, culturally racist representative of the Old Country who wants to see justice against Vin (Edson Jean), the African-American star footballer who planted the animal decoy as a school prank.
The eclectic cast also includes Patti Gardner as Gloria, Joseph's boss at a struggling book imprint. She discovers Joseph is a distant relative of the celebrated Lebanese author of The Prophet, Khalil Gibran, and tries to blackmail him into writing a mostly made-up family memoir. There is also Jose Urbino as Timothy, a TV reporter who grows closer to Joseph while covering the story of his father's death. Barbara Sloan and Carol Caselle each perform three supporting roles.
Director Joseph Adler juggles Karam's many subplots and themes with characteristic deftness, pacing an intermissionless 90-minute play in what feels like an hour. His flair for directing naturalistic conversation remains virtually unparalleled in the region, and it's never better than in the initial meeting between Joseph and Timothy in a sketchy bus terminal. While Joseph keeps his distance from the prying reporter, the two somehow grow intimate, and the protracted scene is a spellbinding tête-à-tête between frenemies — a verbal ballet between two magnets pushing apart the closer they get to each other.
Much of the effectiveness is due to Focas' comfort in the role; he wears it like his own skin — if his own skin were in nearly constant pain. In the five months since 4000 Miles, Focas' acting has blossomed in some beautiful directions, offering an elegant, understated performance rich in nuance and gesture. He's a joy to watch even when — especially when — his character is saying nothing.
Gardner is every bit his onstage equal as Gloria, whose tendency to blather on about subjects she knows little about leads to frequent bouts of foot-in-mouth disease. It would be easy to play Gloria's part as dotty and ridiculous, with the character's offensive mistakes, inopportune timing, and recurring escape of answering her BlackBerry when no one is calling. But Gardner's three-dimensional performance taps into her character's chronic depression, channeling the anguish and delusions as well as the humor.
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In fact, there isn't a rotten egg in this cast. Schiavone is bracingly authentic as that sad old cane-clutching, rosary-praying burden, Uncle Bill, and Kushner is beyond delightful as Charles, nailing with gusto some of the play's funniest lines. Sloan and Caselle have a blast with their largely comic ancillary parts, and in the play's least enviable role, Jean channels the appropriate amount of stiffness and discomfort in the presence of the Douaihy family; his character is the odd man out whenever he's onstage.
GableStage's sets are usually technical triumphs, but few creep up on you as much as Lyle Baskin's do here. What begins as a nondescript backdrop of rotating cream-and-chocolate-hued panels — for Gloria's office — eventually peels away to reveal a middle-class living room flush with lovely details. Another hidden pleasure in Baskin's jewelry box of a set is Charles' second-story bedroom, invisibly positioned atop the main set and illuminated through a screen whenever the show calls for it.
In fact, the scenic design is a lot like Sons of the Prophet itself: a multifaceted structure teeming with surprises. This is a play that looks at human suffering with a wit so effective it might be therapeutic. Expect to laugh when you least expect it.