By Patrick Hurley
Nietzsche said that to live is to suffer, and to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering. Such is the sentiment that propels much of Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet, playing now through March 15 at The Blank Theatre. For his characters, however, survival is about making light in dark times. Mr. Karam uses his deft comic touch, and flair for melodrama to spin a theatrical yarn about the nature of suffering that is as funny as it is pointed. It asks us to consider suffering, through the age-old platitude, what are the odds. A platitude that serves as a kind of guiding force of this play.
Joseph (Adam Silver) is a twenty-nine year old former athlete who has been struggling with severe knee pain, a pain that his doctor is convinced is more than an injury. So the setup for Joseph’s conflict becomes readily apparent as he waits to take more and more tests to find out what exactly is wrong with him. Joseph works for a desperate, aging publisher, Gloria (Tamara Zook) who was driven out of New York for publishing a fictionalized nonfiction book about the holocaust. Desperate for a comeback, Gloria is eager to make Joseph’s family the subject of a book. She soon discovers that Joseph’s family, who are of Lebanese descent, are related to Kahlil Gibran the author of the worldwide sensation, The Prophet. Gloria is also coping with the suicide of her husband. She’s kind of a train wreck. What are the odds that her interest in Joseph’s family is not self-motivated?
Joseph lives with his brother Charles (Braxton Molinaro), and their ailing uncle Bill (Jack Laufer). Joseph and Charles are dealing with their father’s recent death. He was in an accident that may or may not have brought on a fatal heart attack, after the local high school’s star football player, Vin, (Mychal Thompson) played a strange prank that went wrong. Both brothers have a sympathetic eye toward Vin, they don’t entirely blame him for their father’s death, and Charles actually befriends him. Joseph and Charles—who are incidentally both gay—are dealing with the death of their father, the rage of their uncle, and the fact that they may be the last of their name. All of that, on top of Joseph’s crazy boss hounding him for personal family details, and an impending illness that may or may not be serious. What are the odds of all of that?
Finally, As if the play weren’t already crammed with subplots, there’s a gay reporter, Timothy (Erik Odom) a handsome, out-of-towner that Joseph meets late one night at a train station. The two hit it off and Timothy admits to Joseph he’s in town to interview his family about the prank and his father’s death. Timothy promises not to pursue Joseph’s family. What are the odds that he’s telling the truth?
This production starts out a little shaky. The opening sequence with the helicopter light and strip of road leading upstage was an unusual choice. And it distracted from the first scene, simply because it felt so unconnected to it. The staging of the opening scene was also a little stagnant. This could be the result of simply too small of a space, it felt closed-in and stifled. This issue, for the most part, is worked out by the second scene, but negotiating space remains an issue. Director Michael Matthews has a big challenge with some of the scenes, and he is successful more times than not. The moments in Joseph house, where three or more rooms are being used, actually worked out really well. Mr. Matthews cleverly uses lighting as a room divider rather than just relying on our imagination. This is also a credit to lighting designer Luke Moyer, who makes the most of the intimate space.
The staging of the actors, again because of spacing, tends to be having actors in very close proximity of each other and playing on the same plane. There are numerous occasions where two or more actors are lined up on stage, or standing face to face, and this lessens the dramatic tension. It works in certain moments, and the scene in the hotel with Joseph and Timothy actually benefitted from the smaller space, and the closeness that they were forced to play in amped up the dramatic tension. But sometimes a little distance would have been nice to have.
As Joseph, Adam Silver is capable enough to pull through an emotionally spiraling character arc without devolving into obvious or histrionic overacting. There is the danger, every now and then of his underplaying, where his delivery is less of a dramatic action and more of a line read, but this does not override the character’s authentic journey. His (not so) slow burn is effective, if only a bit stiff at times. Braxton Molinaro brings a deftly handled deadpan to Charles. His reactions and wisecracks always land, and are nearly always accompanied by a sweet sincerity, and so we don’t just laugh at him, we understand him. The rest of the cast all have their strengths, from Tamara Zook’s neurotic, emotionally volatile Gloria, to Erik Odom’s easily charming, perhaps duplicitous Timothy. And Jack Laufer, who infuses slightly racist Uncle Bill with equal parts sugar and vinegar.
Loaded with plot, subtext, symbolism, and meaning this play should feel like a hammer to the head. But it doesn’t. Somehow playwright Stephen Karam balances all of the elements, and leaves us with a piece of art that deals with uncomfortable topics and asks tough questions. All with derisive humor, authenticity, and a real-world approach to grief and sorrow. Yes, this is a play about suffering, and no, it’s not going to tell you how to avoid it. It is unavoidable. But that doesn’t mean we can’t laugh at it. And that is exactly what this play does.
Take that, suffering.
Sons of the Prophet
By Stephen Karam
Directed By Michael Matthews
The Blank Theatre
February 7-March 15
Friday and Saturday 8PM