Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Sons of the Prophet at The Huntington

Ah, I love shows like Stephen Karam's Sons of the Prophet, which just closed at Boston's Huntington Theater. It's clever and full of heart but also rudely funny. (I assume I'll feel the same way about The Book of Mormon, the musical by those South Park guys.)

The play begins with a car accident resulting from a stupid high-school prank, which is just the latest of the tragedies surrounding a Lebanese family that is descended from early-twentieth-century Prophet poet Kahlil Gibran. (Surely you've been at a wedding where this verse was read: "Love one another, but make not a bond of love / Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.") The play is structured around titles of Gibran passages that are projected as supertitles, like "On Pain," and this familial connection is central to their lives, especially the relationship between father and sons.

Set in a dying industrial area of Pennsylvania, settled by Lebanese expats and sharing names with places in the Middle East, geography is key to this tale: the younger brother is a geography bee champion because the father taught the boys to recognize countries based on odd shapes (Russia does look like a headless dog!), the older brother longs to escape but doesn't have a passport, the reporter is writing a travelogue, and the crazy boss has just moved to where her husband had grown up.

Along the way, Sons addresses dichotomies including the crushing responsibility of family bonds/the strength they give, wanderlust/cultural ties, fame/stable job with health insurance, youth/elders, Maronite/Mormon, big-city glamour/small-town stoicism, tightknit white family/black high schooler in Jewish foster home, justice/mercy and hope, creating healthy connections/severing disfunctional bonds. Plus death and pain and forgiveness. Yet the play somehow doesn't sag under that weight: the final scene is so sadly hopeful.

With so many themes crammed into one play, it's hard to explore all of them, of course, and some may find that dissatisfying. But one of the play's strengths is in showing how complex a life can be--the need to balance competing relationships, responsibilities to work and family, needs of self and others, and valid but opposing world views.

I went into the show expecting to like it and came out loving it. I've seen the Huntington production twice now, and I'll see it again after it transfers to Roundabout's off-Broadway theater in the fall. Speech & Debate, an earlier Karam play that I saw at Roundabout's black box and then in a separate regional production at the Lyric Stage in Boston, is charming and very funny, if a bit superficial and rough around the edges. But Roundabout's investment in this young playwright is well deserved. Sons is just as funny though less slapstick, more complex, and ultimately more satisfying.

Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois seems to be quietly working to strengthen the bonds between the Boston and New York theater scenes with this show and Becky Shaw, which he directed here and at Second Stage. (He'll be back at Second Stage this summer directing All New People, by Scrubs actor Zach Braff.) DuBois has assembled a strong cast for Sons, and I expect many of them will transfer, since most have New York credits. And the show definitely seems to be a vehicle for Joanna Gleason, a master of daftly charming characters.

Kelsey Kurz is excellent as a single man, almost 30, who is suddenly saddled with the care of his crazy family at the same time as starting work for a crazy new boss and starting to date a self-centered and ambitious reporter. (My only quibble with his casting is that Kurz is not at all built like the competitive long-distance runner he is supposed to be.) Lizbeth Mackay, who shows up very late in the play for a wonderful scene with Kurz, gives a beautifully understated performance, and I'll be keeping my eyes open for a chance to see her in larger roles. (I sadly don't remember her from the recent Broadway revival of All My Sons, but she was sharing the stage with the phenomenal John Lithgow, Diane Wiest, Patrick Wilson, and Becky Ann Baker--and the phenomenally bad Katie Holmes.)

The Boston production has just closed, so catch Sons of the Prophet in New York this fall.

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