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Sons of the Prophet

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Santino Fontana and Joanna Gleason
Photo by Joan Marcus.

You can't name a kind of pain that Joseph Douaihy is not suffering through. Emotional, physical, psychological, spiritual, it doesn't matter—this 29-year-old Lebanese-American Pennsylvanian man is enduring what any reasonable person would consider a very bad year. Yet in his remarkable new play about Joseph, Sons of the Prophet, playwright Stephen Karam does not dwell endlessly on these or any other ills, but rather on the universal, the mystic, and the restorative properties of strife. The result, now playing at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre, is one of the most curious, involving, and ultimately beautiful plays of the year.

That Karam could elicit such intricacy and depth from this potentially implosive setup will not surprise those who caught his breakthrough work, Speech & Debate, when Roundabout used it to inaugurate its Roundabout Underground program aimed at younger theatregoers in 2007. That play explored issues of sexuality, morality, and abuse as they reverberated within a close-knit community and then through the country as a whole. Now that Karam has moved to the bigger time (and to an upstairs theater) he expands his perspective by reversing its polarity and demonstrating how the ills of the world can be reflected in and felt by one person.

That's Joseph (the superb Santino Fontana). This former Olympic-contender runner has recently developed a burning sensation in his knees and a heaviness in other parts of his body he's sure are symptoms of multiple sclerosis. His father recently collided with a deer decoy while driving, causing a horrific accident that has landed him in (at least) the hospital. This forces dad's older brother, Bill (Yusef Bulos), to come live with Joseph and his younger brother, Charles (Chris Perfetti), in the family home, and adds the strain of round-the-clock care to Joseph's already spine-snapping burden.

Oh yes, and Joseph must also function as the support system for Gloria (Joanna Gleason), the independent literary packager and widow who employs Joseph and provides him with his much-needed health insurance. She means well, of course, but she's interested in assembling a book about Joseph's family and his blood relation to Khalil Gibran, a door the immensely private Joseph would prefer remain closed. As for his intimate life, he's gay and single, and his only likely romantic prospect is the television reporter (Charles Socarides) who's tracked him down to report on his father's accident, yet somehow already knows more than he should about Joseph.

Karam weaves this tale through a loose reinterpretation of Gibran's best-known book, The Prophet, that focuses on Joseph's evolution over the most pivotal seven-month span of his life, with each approaching the task from a different angle ("On Pain," "On Friendship," and "On Reason & Passion" are among their titles). But because Karam investigates every facet of every detail, this treatment never seems cheap or reductive. Joseph's well-integrated terror at events in the Middle East, particularly the homeland he's never even visited, courses beneath all his other troubles and provides the too-believable answer to the question we're all prone to ask in such situations: "How could things possibly get worse?"

Karam's sensitivity and sparkling showmanship ensure they don't, and director Peter DuBois renders both qualities with a quiet confidence that gives the production the heady feel of a waking dream instead of an oppressive aura of tragedy. Anna Louizos's free-flowing set, which builds and deconstructs itself as unpredictably as if it too were part of Joseph's disordered thoughts, Japhy Weideman's wistful (if occasionally too-dark) lighting, and M.L. Dogg's sound design all make vital contributions to the anxious but restful existence Karam's play chronicles.

So do the actors, with Gleason marvelously restrained as the clingy, hypochondriac Gloria; Perfetti wryly endearing as the sharp yet oddly innocent Charles; Bulos finding all of Bill's compassion and frustration within the character's slow-motion disintegration; and Socarides displaying a nice blend of thoughtfulness and opportunism as Joseph's potential two-way savior. Dee Nelson and Lizbeth Mackay are fine in a variety of wellness-ensemble roles, as is Jonathan Louis Dent in the somewhat extraneous role of the delinquent who removes Joseph's dad from the picture.

But no one accomplishes more than Fontana. This exceptionally gifted actor, last seen in Roundabout's delightful revival of The Importance of Being Earnest, blossoms into a full-out star with his portrayal here. Practically every moment he's onstage you see Joseph struggling to balance his optimism and despair, and trying to maintain his tender tendencies in a life that's becoming increasingly ugly. Fontana simultaneously depicts absolute strength and consummate weakness, implanting in you exactly the unsettling impression that haunts Joseph's every waking moment: that his life has fallen entirely outside his own control.

Or has it? As Joseph slowly grasps what his illness is—and isn't—he's able to take steps to combat its more deleterious effects. This is Joseph's final race, not against time but against himself, and it's documented in two spectacular scenes late in the second act. First he vents all his rage on the people who've inspired it, then turns around to exclude the outer world entirely so he may begin to rebuild himself from the inside out. As he does so, through only a series of silent motions intended to restore his strength and flexibility, Fontana's face relaxes into a look of beatific satisfaction suggesting he's perceiving something beyond mortal understanding.

Whether Joseph solves his problems will not be revealed here. In a way, it doesn't matter. What does is that Karam, DuBois, and Fontana have crafted this elegant and engrossing theatrical embodiment of Gibran's foundational philosophy, "all is well." While you're watching Sons of the Prophet, it most assuredly is.

Sons of the Prophet
Through December 23
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes, with no intermission
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