Stephen Karam (“Speech & Debate”) writes from an off-kilter sensibility that sees something bitterly funny in life’s tragedies. In his dark comedy, “Sons of the Prophet,” scribe uses the biblical misfortunes of a Lebanese-American family to make light of death, disease, and physical infirmity — and the compulsion of our cynical age to exploit all that misery for the commercial marketplace. Play is seriously entertaining, if a bit facile in wrapping up its themes.
Santino Fontana (“Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “The Importance of Being Earnest”) gives a standup perf as Joseph Douaihy, the Job-like character at the heart of this quirky family drama. Thesp wins unconditional sympathy for this sensitive gay introvert by tapping directly into the core of quiet strength behind his self-effacing manner.
Joseph shoulders the family burden after his father is killed in a freakish road accident in their Pennsylvania home town, the victim of a high-school kid’s dumb prank. But a mysterious illness attacking his joints has put severe limits on his ability to care for his teenaged brother, Charles (an endearing cutup in Chris Perfetti’s sharp perf), and their irascible Uncle Bill (Yusef Bulos, playing his heart out), whose own health is deteriorating.
These character-building trials and tribulations are embraced by Uncle Bill, who stoically reminds his nephews that “the Douaihys have a habit of dying tragically — like the Kennedys without the sex appeal.” In mute testimony to that macabre heritage, a picture of Lebanon’s patron saint, St. Rafka, hangs in an upstairs bedroom, blindly gazing out at them from empty and bloody eye sockets.
Joseph’s objective is to free himself from his family’s religious faith in the nobility of suffering, but the harder he resists, the greater the torments of his mysterious illness. He thinks he’s solved one problem, anyway, when he finds work — and the medical benefits that go with it — with the independent book packager Gloria Gurney (Joanna Gleason, monstrously funny). Gloria soon puts him straight: the job is conditional on his writing a memoir about his family connection to the mystic poet Kahlil Gibran, the prophet who preached spiritual bliss through suffering.
Even if it does capture the desperate state of the modern-day publishing industry, this is a preposterous idea for a book. But Karam advances his absurd joke with droll earnestness and Gleason finds endlessly inventive ways to work comic variations on it.
Meanwhile, an ambitious reporter shows up to capitalize on the family’s latest misfortune — a controversial legal decision on the father’s fatal auto accident. In ruling that the dumb jock responsible for the tragedy could put off his juvie detention sentence until the end of football season, a local judge raises disquieting questions about the relative value of one person’s suffering over another’s.
Helmer Peter DuBois (a.d. of Boston’s Huntington Theater, where this production originated) has found an appropriate comic tone of sweet insanity for portraying the woes that befall this hapless family. But despite the amiable spirit of the production, the play itself feels unfinished.
For all the amusing contortions that Gleason puts her through, Gloria is a one-dimensional character in a one-note role. The mysterious ailment that plagues Joseph and figures so prominently in the story is never identified. And the moral relativism of that judge’s controversial legal ruling is argued but left unresolved.
Karam is adept at identifying the moral struggles that have left this family battered and bruised, but his curious reluctance to resolve the issues he raises takes a good bit of the sting out of their suffering.