Here’s a play dedicated to anyone who’s gone on a laughing jag at a funeral, or who jokes with the doctors as they’re preparing her for open heart surgery. Indeed, it’s for all of us who deal with pain, loss or tragedy through laughter, as well as all the other more expected emotions.
The play is Sons of the Prophet by Stephen Karam, now at Dobama Theatre. And while it’s often hilariously funny, it is also touching as we watch 29-year-old Joseph, his younger brother Charles and his Uncle Bill grapple with various serious (along with some petty) problems.
Trouble is, the play is something of a dog’s breakfast in terms of structure, with scenes loosely strung together and many storylines never explored or resolved even slightly. In short, it’s a happy mess, made even happier by some excellent and well-modulated performances.
The above-mentioned trio is part of the Lebanese-American Douaihy family, residing in Pennsylvania under a cloud of doom and gloom. Joseph has an encroaching undiagnosed illness, Charles has a fake ear, their father has just died after crashing his car into a stuffed deer, and elderly Uncle Bill, hobbling on a walker, is challenged in myriad ways.
Add to all that the fact that Joseph, who is gay like Charles, is being hectored by his blacklisted book-packaging boss Gloria to write a memoir. The reason: Joseph’s family is a marketing coup since they are distant relations to the philosopher-poet Kahlil Gibran.
Karam spins laugh lines like a pro (“Our family has a history of dying tragically. We’re like the Kennedys without the sex appeal.”). And he has a sure touch for natural dialogue, the kind that often spills over itself as people try to make their separate points.
Karam does well by characters, too. Gloria is a relentlessly focused entrepreneur with ADD—she can’t remember anything about her employee Joseph for more than a nanosecond—and she has many of the best lines. Anne McEvoy downplays her nicely, allowing the woman’s eccentric nature to bloom naturally.
Chris Richards is equally adept at undercutting Joseph’s travails, allowing the playwright’s humor to sneak up on the audience, as it should. He is nicely matched with Christopher Sanders as Charles, who develops a crush on Vin (Johnathon Jackson), the high school football hero who put the deer in the road as a prank.
Bernard Canepari blusters amusingly as Uncle Bill, although this fine actor could perhaps have been given more levels to explore as the man who wants to lead the family but is no longer is able.
Some of the most exquisite moments of comedy are delivered by two women, Laura Starnik and Jeanne Task, who play multiple roles with delightful and inventive precision.
The only character who doesn’t ring true is Timothy (Aaron Mucciolo), a gay man who Joseph meets in a bus station. But their attraction to each other is never well defined, leaving this relationship hanging in the wind.
Overall, this assemblage of humorous snippets fails to leave the impact it might, since the shape of the play feels almost randomly fashioned. This is especially true at the end, when a scene lands from out of the blue, leading nowhere in particular. We don’t need pat and tidy endings, but a little more structure wouldn’t hurt.
Director Scott Miller guides his cast through this landscape of pain and giggles with skill. But he and scenic designer Laura Carlson seems hamstrung by Dobama’s stage—a space so big and awkward that the actors are often either smushed together in upstage corners or arrayed with yawning stretches of stage between them.
Sons of the Prophet
Through March 17 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, 216-932-3396