Misery’s Company

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atc sons of the prophetI don’t normally make it a point to return to a show twice (if I did that in a city like Chicago with its buzzing theater scene, I’d never get to see as much theater as I would want to), but I returned a couple of times to American Theater Company’s 2008 production of Stephen Karam’s hilariously scathing yet joyfully triumphant Speech and Debate during its run, one of my ten best shows of that year.  That production was at the beginning of Artistic Director PJ Paparelli’s tenure at ATC and memorably announced his arrival in this tough theater town. Fast forward to 2014, and Paparelli, now one of the city’s admired directors, is once again taking on a Karam play, and this one a 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama nominee to boot.  Paparelli stages Sons of the Prophet, about the various misfortunes that befall a gay Lebanese-American born, raised, and living in Scranton, PA (probably the biggest misfortune of all, if you asked me), warmly, and with a sure hand. Unfortunately, despite some crackling dialogue and typically outrageous plot twists, I don’t find Karam’s writing in Sons of the Prophet as insightful, as clear-eyed, or as enthralling as I did in Speech and Debate.

Joseph Douaihy’s father just died from a heart attack after being in a freak accident involving a deer decoy on a deserted road, set up as a prank by the high school football star.  While dealing with his grief, he’s also juggling a potentially debilitating bone illness, caring for his younger, one-eared gay brother and sick curmudgeonly uncle, fending off the attentions of both his insane boss who wants to publish a book about his family’s distant connections to the writer Kahlil Gibran, and a slick, closeted local news reporter covering his father’s death as a sensationalized news item. He is like a younger, hipper, gayer, 21st century incarnation of Job, but instead of ending up inside the belly of a whale, he ends up in the hot tub in the reporter’s hotel room.  This is all sad-funny and attention-grabbing, with Karam ultimately making the point that the human spirit endures despite all the whipping and smacking that it takes from the gods and the universe.  It’s a fine point to make, and have been made in even finer, sharper style by other plays (see Tarell McCraney’s Head of Passes at Steppenwolf last season). But I’m disappointed that Karam starts so many potentially interesting thematic threads in Sons of the Prophet that don’t get fully developed: what does it mean to be a double minority (gay and Lebanese) in a blue-collar, conservative, Wonderbread place like rural Pennsylvania? What does it mean to be a second-generation immigrant with values and experiences very different from your parents and grandparents? Why does news-hungry, schadenfreude-scavenging modern America expect one’s private pain to become public pleasure? And how much is one willing to exploit these qualities for financial gain? Speech and Debate deftly tackled similar resonant socio-cultural themes with an original, focused writing voice; Sons of the Prophet on the other feels meandering and superficial, more wisecracking stand-up comedy act than Jon Stewart Daily Show.

My other issue is that unlike Speech and Debate’s flamboyant Diwata who is unmistakably front and center in that play, Sons of the Prophet’s Joseph is more passive and sometimes overwhelmed by the idiosyncratic, colorful characters in his orbit.  And although Tyler Ravelson is watchable, his performance doesn’t have that larger-than-life quality that anchors us to the play, and that makes us care for his character the most.  The rest of the cast’s performances, despite some tendency to go for the easy broad humor, are fine with Michael Weingard as Charles, Joseph’s catty, sashaying younger brother and Greg Matthew Anderson (whose dazzling star quality never falters in every show he is in, no matter the size of the role) as Timothy the news reporter, all calculating slickness, the definitive standouts.  Sons of the Prophet is an entertaining night at the theater and can temporarily warm you up during these dismaying Chicago polar vortex nights.  I just wished it is as biting as the cold we are escaping from.

Sons of the Prophet is at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron Street, until March 9.


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