At first, Stephen Karam’s grimly brilliant comedy about pain and loss might not seem very festive. But sadness is as much a part of Christmas as turkey or eggnog, as people long for the lost cathedral-like shelter of the family they had as a kid. ‘Sons of the Prophet’ follows two parentless young brothers dealing with the unfamiliar interpersonal architecture following their dad’s death, and that alone feels pretty season-appropriate, even before you consider the fact that it’s very, very funny, contains the odd bit of gorgeous choral music and even has a dinky light-up tree in one corner of the stage.
Joseph and Charles’s dad has died just before Christmas in a freak accident. A high-schooler put a stuffed deer in the middle of a road as a prank and he swerved to avoid it, dying of a heart attack a week later. Now they’ve wound up caring for their doddery, devout uncle Bill, and for adjudicating in a moral dilemma: how should that high-schooler be punished? Does he deserve to lose a potential sports scholarship to college over a stupid joke? It’s fertile ground, especially with reporter Timothy sniffing around for scandal, but Karam’s oddly structured, hour-and-40-minute play doesn’t really explore it. This piece is too gentle, too deeply human to sit with the idea of punishing the kid for long. Instead, the hearing provides an excuse for a set-piece that allows each member of this little community to air their own unique flavour of dysfunction.
And what a lot of dysfunction there is to air. Director Bijan Sheibani’s closely naturalistic production is packed with memorably weird performances. Irfan Shamji and Eric Sirakian have an immaculate rapport as twentysomething brothers Joseph and Charles: they constantly talk over each other, Sirakian’s little bro needling away at Shamji’s suffering big sibling like a wasp buzzing round a bear’s ear, their tensions culminating in a hilariously painful-looking fight in a hospital bed. As Bill, Raad Rawi is the cantankerous custodian of tradition, maintaining links to their Lebanese Christian heritage (the family’s part of a division of the Eastern Church called the Maronites) by clinging to the gory stories of saints, their perseverance through suffering offering comfort in his. And Juliet Cowan delivers a standout performance as Gloria, the comically clueless wealthy publisher who’s paying for Joseph’s health insurance, her purse strings loosened by her obsession with his Maronite heritage and the solutions to her own spiritual malaise it seems to hold.
Another Karam play, ‘The Humans’, was a big hit for Hampstead Theatre in 2018, so it’s easy to see why it’s hosting a belated European premiere for this earlier work (which premiered in 2011 in New York). ‘Sons of the Prophet’ might be a decade-old play set in an obscure Christian community in rural Pennsylvania but there’s so much that’ll speak to a UK audience in 2022: its insight into the terrors of navigating a failing health system, its sharp comment about class and tokenism in the arts, its exploration of how these brothers keep stumbling along as the world dumps more and more pain at their door. ‘All will be well,’ says the refrain to their father’s favourite hymn, but it clearly won’t. Still, it’s a tribute to Karam’s skill as a playwright that so much hope and humour shine through this broken but colourful stained-glass-window of a play.