American Theater Company. By Stephen Karam. Directed by PJ Paparelli. With ensemble cast. 1hr 30mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
“You are far, far greater than you know, and all is well,” the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran reportedly said was the message of The Prophet, his bestselling book of zealously inspirational homilies. The latter part of that thought—“All is well”—has trailed Joseph Douaihy (Tyler Ravelson), a 29-year-old son of Lebanese immigrants, all his life: Family legend has it that Gibran was a distant relation, and Joseph’s father and uncle, both devout Maronite Christians, utter the phrase reflexively, as a mantra.
But all is far from well with Joseph, as we quickly learn in Stephen Karam’s dexterous, incisive Sons of the Prophet, a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. A former high school track champion who’s spent the last several years training, but failing, to qualify for the Olympics, Joseph now finds his body seeming to rebel, accumulating frightening maladies his doctors can’t figure out. For health insurance purposes, he takes a job as assistant to Gloria (Natalie West), a wealthy, flighty and very high-maintenance book packager.
He has no romantic life, which his teenage brother Charles (Michael Weingand) chalks up to Joseph’s being too discreet about his sexuality; both brothers are gay. (“You didn’t really need to come out, did you?” Joseph retorts to the more ostentatious Charles.) And what’s more, the boys’ father has just died after being injured in a car accident and, two weeks later, having a heart attack; Joseph then has to take in his cantankerous uncle Bill (Will Zahrn), whose own health is rapidly fading.
How could so much pain accrue on one family, you have to wonder. What are the chances? Turns out that’s another phrase that’s dogged Joseph. What are the chances both Douaihy boys would be gay? What are the chances they’d be the end of the family line? What are the chances the deer his father swerved to avoid hitting would be a decoy, placed in the road by a high-school student as a prank?
It’s that capriciousness of bad luck that Karam is after here, and it’s a measure of his remarkable aim and empathy that Sons is as fantastically funny as it is while the Douaihys’ misfortunes pile up. Fate may not be smiling on the family, but Karam’s affection for his characters is palpable and warm. Why bad things happen to good people is an unanswerable question, but there are many answers to how people abide and survive.
American Theater Company artistic director PJ Paparelli, who knows Karam’s work quite well (the two co-wrote columbinus, and Paparelli has twice directed Karam’s Speech and Debate at ATC), hugs this piece’s every emotional curve with his staging, carefully matching the playwright’s tricky balance of comedy and tragedy.
And a superb cast makes hay of the material; if Karam doesn’t give his secondary characters much room to grow over the play’s course, the likes of the daffy West, mordant newcomer Weingand and Greg Matthew Anderson, as a slick reporter who catches Joseph’s eye, make terrific foils for Joseph’s central journey. Ravelson, an actor whose appealingly spiky energy has glinted amid large ensemble pieces at ATC, the House Theatre and the Goodman in recent years, confidently embraces leading-man status, crafting a character arc marked with compassion, vulnerability and striking honesty.