Life lessons are learned in sad, comic and very human ways in Stephen Karam’s darkly funny and touching new play, “Sons of the Prophet,” receiving a first-class preem at Beantown’s Huntington Theater Company ahead of a bow at Gotham’s Roundabout Theater Company next season.
“You are far, far greater than you know, and all is well,” wrote Kahlil Gibran in the mystical and aphoristic 1923 mega-seller, “The Prophet.” In the case of Gibran’s distant Lebanese-American descendants featured in this wonderfully acted and sensitively helmed production, he is only half right.
All is certainly not well in the Douaihy family, which experiences death, illness and missing body parts. “The Douaihys have a habit of dying tragically,” says older brother Joseph (Kelsey Kurz, who centers the work with his decency and vulnerability). “We’re like the Kennedys without the sex appeal.”
Set in central Pennsylvania, play opens with the sounds of a car crash, the result of a misguided prank by the high school’s star jock, Vin (Jonathan Louis Dent). In the aftermath, Joseph, 29, and his 18-year-old, one-eared, stoner brother, Charles (a charmingly loopy Dan McCabe) try to cope with their paternal loss as well as the arrival into their household of their elderly, politically incorrect and increasingly dependent Uncle Bill (a deeply grounded perf by Yusef Bulos).
But problems are unrelenting. Joseph is dealing with mysterious body ailments, a nonexistent social life and a trying job working for a needy publisher, Gloria (Joanna Gleason, at her dry, oblivious best), in order to get health insurance.
Gloria is desperate for a big book break and pursues a deal for the family to exploit its Gibran connection. When a judge defers Vin’s sentencing until football season is over, it not only adds to the family’s pain but becomes big news with TV reporter Tim (Charles Socarides), hot for a story — as well as Joseph.
Just as he did with “Speech and Debate,” Karam demonstrates an original comic voice for young characters, but here he expands generationally. This larger sensibility recalls Scott McPherson’s “Marvin’s Room” in its depiction of a quirky family in crisis, mixed with black humor and an open heart.
At times Karam takes on more than his idiosyncratic tale can handle, at least at this stage in the development of the work, here beautifully shaped by helmer Peter DuBois. Scribe taps into socioeconomic issues, health-care problems, the crisis in the Middle East, not to mention the connection between “The Prophet” and “The Book of Mormon” (the tome, not the musical).
But this overload of life’s messy madness may be Karam’s method. In the end, a sweet peace is achieved, with life lessons discovered that are simple, serene and wise.