Magazine article The New Yorker

Bluebird of Unhappiness

Magazine article The New Yorker

Bluebird of Unhappiness

Article excerpt

"Ravishing" is the best word for Stephen Karam's new comedy "Sons of the Prophet" (elegantly directed by Peter DuBois, at the Roundabout's Laura Pels). At once deep, deft, and beautifully made, "Sons of the Prophet" stares unflinchingly at the Gorgon's head of grief--the kind of grief on which words have no purchase, the indigestible pain that never really goes away. In other words, the suffering that an audience expects theatre to deflect with laughter, rather than to embrace.

"You . . . can't stand in your pain too long," a wise old woman says, late in the evening. "It's like quicksand, you'll sink, never get past it." In this episodic tale, all the main characters are caught, one way or another, in the tight grip of sorrow. Shit happens, as the T-shirt says, but Karam contrives to dump an entire outhouse on the luckless Lebanese-American Douaihy family. The Douaihys are very distant relatives of the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran, the author of the inspirational text "The Prophet," and Gibran's famous mantra "All is well" haunts the hapless goings on at their house, in a run-down section of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where all is definitely not well, and may never be.

"Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand," Mark Twain said. Even before the play begins, Karam tests Twain's assertion by dipping the audience into an acid bath of absurd disaster. Through a scrim, we see looming headlights collide with a silhouetted stag. The animal turns out to be the wooden mascot of the Mighty Bucks, the local high-school football team, which has been placed in the middle of the street as a prank; the resulting roadkill is the patriarch of the Douaihy clan. "The Douaihys have a habit of dying tragically. We're like the Kennedys without the sex appeal," Joseph (Santino Fontana), the newly orphaned twenty-nine-year-old elder son, says. Joseph, who is at the center of this dark comic storm, was an aspiring Olympic runner until an injury hobbled him. His eighteen-year-old brother, Charles (the droll Chris Perfetti), is a geography nerd. Both are gay. And, to add to the weight of Joseph's bag of rocks, their blustering, disabled uncle, Bill (Yusef Bulos), who is by turns pious and racist, insists on moving into the family home as the brothers' guardian, when it's as clear as the walker in front of him that he can't take care of himself. "Who's looking after me now?!" Joseph shouts at his infuriating uncle. "Who's taking care of me now?!--it's been a nightmare organizing you living here and you keep pretending you're taking care of us!" Topping the bill in this vaudeville of calamity is Joseph's torn meniscus, the primary symptom of a trifecta of unrelated debilitating ailments, which will cost a king's ransom to address--assuming, of course, that the doctors can figure out what's wrong in the first place.

Standard comic anarchy turns the world upside down, then puts it back together again at the finale, returning us to the status quo ante. Karam's ambivalent, sly, subversive brand of laughter, however, dares to assert that that is not how the world works. He lets his characters exist in all their messiness and refuses them a tidy resolution. In this gossamer game, Karam is trying to capture both the process of suffering and the comedy of how we cope with it. Through a series of narrative jumps, his finely pitched, oblique dialogue teases the audience into thought. Projected above each scene is a title inspired by the chapter headings in "The Prophet"--"On Friendship," "On Reason and Passion," "On Home"--drawing us into the rueful central drama, which is the mystery of change over time. For instance, the Douaihys at first refuse to meet Vin (Jonathan Louis Dent), the star player of the Mighty Bucks, who was responsible for the deadly prank with the deer, and are doubly outraged when a local judge proposes postponing Vin's detention until after football season. "We're not meeting this kid," Joseph says. "No good can come of it. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.