Sons of the Prophet at GableStage: Surprising Humor in Human Suffering

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.

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.

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John Thomason