Monday, April 18, 2011

Dan McCabe and Joanna Gleason take to the couch in Sons of the Prophet.
The Huntington's latest premiere, Stephen Karam's Sons of the Prophet  - at the Calderwood Pavilion through May 1 - opens with a car crash. And then, slowly, turns into one. An entertaining one, mind you -  a funny one. But still a car crash.

Or - wait; this Broadway-bound vehicle certainly swerves off-road, but does it really count as a "car crash"? Crashes have points of impact, after all. Central conflicts, if you will. And Sons of the Prophet lacks any such organizing feature. It's more like a traffic circle, come to think of it, with dozens of potential conflicts orbiting a central void.

But let me say right up front - you don't really need me to tell you that.  The issues in the script are so big (and so obvious) that even the print critics have been able to make them out (roughly). We're not talking the fine points of The Merchant of Venice here.  Not that weak reviews - and I think most in Boston will be weak - will kill the show, as it's already scheduled to open at the Roundabout in the fall. We're the try-out town, just like in the good old days (funny how everything comes around again, isn't it).  And author Karam and director Peter DuBois seem to know they have issues -  in fact, they have smartly left a whole summer between the Huntington close and the New York open for Karam to rewrite the show.

Which is a good thing, because Sons of the Prophet is going to need a lot of work - although to be honest, it feels like it's already had a lot of work.  Clearly the script has been crafted to within an inch of its life - there's not a split-second of dead air in it, the jokes and quirks and  "reversals" pop like clockwork, and there are witty refs and self-aware literary gambits nestled within it like so many Russian dolls, to give the whole thing the impression of resonance.  That's what "development" is good at.  Structural issues, though - well, not so much.   Not to mention the basic problem that - how to put this? - Stephen Karam doesn't seem to have anything new to say. Or at least nothing beyond "My characters are in pain, isn't that funny and sad at the same time?" Which, you know, if you've been in a coma for the past twenty years, may strike you as a revelation.  If not, you may notice Karam seems to be checking off as many boxes as he can on the current new-play-development scorecard.
 Joseph in the wilderness.

To be fair, he's a funny and perceptive guy, and perhaps the sense of artistic malaise that afflicts Sons of the Prophet is just a sign of growing pains. Indeed, this is only his second major play, and it's shot through with echoes of his first, the Glee-like hit Speech and Debate - there's a gay high schooler left over from that script, for instance, as well as a climactic showdown in a high school auditorium.  Trouble is, these are interlarded with shards of other recent Broadway successes, by other people - Karam shoplifts a central conflict from Rabbit Hole, for instance, as well as one of the major running gags from The Seafarer.

Admittedly, the playwright gives a new spin to most of his borrowed goods - he partly re-organizes the whitebread Rabbit around race, for instance - but these various spins often spin off in different directions, so the resulting amalgam never gels.  It still might, if Karam came up with some actual "development" for his central character, Joseph Douaihly, who's gay (of course) but straight-acting-and-appearing, and suffering from a variety of ailments, some emotional, some physical, and some probably a little of both. 

Joseph's ills began with the untimely death of his father - of a heart attack brought on by that opening car crash, in which he swerved to avoid what he thought was a deer, but which turned out to be only a deer decoy, in fact the local high school's football mascot, dragged into the road as a prank by the star of the opposing team.  Poor Joseph's coat of many dolors also includes "assisting" his bonkers book-editor boss (a confidently clueless Joanna Gleason) recover from her umpteenth "fall from grace" - although he really puts up with her just as a way to get medical insurance.  Meanwhile, at home, his gay high-school-age brother (who looks 30, but never mind) and loveably crusty uncle are up in arms over the fact that a local judge has given that guilty football star a few weeks off (to win the big game) before facing his sentence - and a photogenic TV reporter has begun sniffing around the family tragedy, sensing a tabloid story that might vault him to the big leagues.  Soon the quarterback has shown up on the doorstep, too, begging for forgiveness - although maybe only because saying he's sorry might buy him some leniency.   Then again, the kid is hot - so is that so wrong?

Somewhere in all this there is a set of linked concerns.  Karam half has it in mind to contrast feel-good, secular-humanist relative values, which celebrate the self and sex (and, of course, Khalil Gibran, the "prophet" to whom Joseph is distantly related), with old-school family values, which may be judgmental in a "That's-racist!" kind of way, but also provide the only semblance of love and commitment the world seems to offer - and thus the only source of genuine grief, too. Karam's satiric instincts, however, whisper to him that Old-Testament love and grief are nevertheless all muddled up with New-Age self-interest and exploitation these days - tellingly, all his characters show up at the Douaihly hearth sooner or later (maybe because it's the only hearth around), but only to get what they can out of it. 

In this way the playwright loosely parallels the cynical arc of the more-successful Becky Shaw, another DuBois production from last year.  But that play actually landed, eventually, on something like a moral conclusion.  Karam, however, refuses to commit to a particular stance, and without organizing his hero's trajectory (and his romantic subplot) around that, the playwright can't really pull all his witty cultural deconstruction into a vision.  Perhaps as a result, Karam's hero simply rejects everyone and everything in the play in one last blow-out, and retreats to the lonely solace of physical therapy; indeed, as the curtain falls he still hasn't embarked on the journey we thought the play was going to be about.

Still, even if Sons of the Prophet goes nowhere, the trip around the traffic circle is an entertaining one, thanks to the crack comic cast DuBois has assembled to put it over.  Gleason is a hoot, as you'd expect from this Broadway vet, but there are equally sharp turns from Dan McCabe, as that all-knowing gay bro, and Yusef Bulos, as Joseph's not-so-funny uncle.  Local light Dee Nelson also scores, with the witty Lizbeth Mackay, in a variety of supporting roles, as does Jonathan Louis Dent as that low-key, but angling, quarterback.  Alas, hotties Kelsey Kurz (above right) and Charles Socarides make less of an impression as Joseph and his possible partner, but you get the impression that's because the roles don't make much of an impression; indeed, Kurz pulls off a sudden breakdown toward the finish that's quite moving in its eloquence, but only leaves you wondering - uh, where did that come from?

A similar question mark hovers over the whole production, despite the talents of everyone involved (including designer Anna Louizos, who imaginatively crams a zillion different locales onto the Calderwood stage). But I suppose there's always the summer to make things right. It might be a long one.

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