LOVE, FONTANA, COMPASSION
One of the joys of seeing theatre in New York City Off Broadway is that, every so often, you get to see a special star-of-the-future appear in the firmament and watch his wattage increase with each role. Santino Fontana’s performance as Joseph in the Roundabout Theatre’s production of Stephen Karam’s lovely new play Sons of the Prophet offers theatregoers the chance to catch one of America’s best young actors as his career makes an upward trajectory.
Stephen Karam’s estimable play Sons of the Prophet, now playing at the Laura Pels Theatre, is the story of Joseph, a young man navigating the grief of a father’s death and, at the same time, coming to terms with his own mysterious illnesses. Karam beautifully weaves the mythic into this tale of two brothers, both gay, who are children of Lebanese immigrants and are also related to the poet Kalhil Gibran (albeit a few times removed). Karam beautifully exploits the Pennsylvania landscape with its towns named after Holy places in the Middle East, suggesting an invocation of Joseph’s potentially prophetic Lebanese legacy. Sons of the Prophet is rich in theme and story, if a bit short-sighted on plot.
Karam is a writer who clearly loves humanity and has a deep compassion for those who suffer. By balancing humor and pathos, Karam gives us a world where there is always time for loving brothers to have a tickle-fest while waiting for potentially catastrophic medical test results. As Karam showed us in his electric Speech and Debate, he is not afraid to paint broad, funny characters and put them in theatrical situations with highly serious implications. Karam’s instincts are almost always spot on as he fearlessly allows us to delight in humor and irony while his characters break our hearts. He knows the rhythms of dialogue in relationships, both the awkward and the familiar. His characters often overlap their sentences uncomfortably and end sentences before thoughts are complete, just like in life. Or, as Karam elegantly informs us, he hears humanity yearning to connect and to be heard. Unlike his “too cool for school” downtown contemporaries who write away from inevitable scenes, Karam fearlessly mines the relationships of his world for the lowest dramatic valleys and the highest peaks, and the audience is not only given a story with catharsis, but leaves the theatre emotionally satisfied.
My only hesitancies in calling Sons of the Prophet a great play lies in both its lack of plot and Karam’s weakness in developing fully dimensional characters over the age of 40. Like Speech and Debate, the older characters in Sons of the Prophet are two-dimensional, unlike their fully formed younger counterparts. The over-40 folks feel more like stock characters than real people. Joanna Gleason does a lovely job as Joseph’s narcissistic, somewhat crazy boss, yet her excellent comic chops can’t hide the fact that her character is no more than comic relief and a story device. Karam’s biggest problem with Sons of the Prophet is that his play lacks a substantive plot. Granted, his story is in place, the family in Sons of the Prophet faces a morally ambiguous choice of forgiveness while having to process and forgive itself for its own deterioration. Joseph certainly has a shift in consciousness about his own situation by the end of the play. But alas, a genuine plot is nowhere in sight. The choice to perform the one-hour and forty-five minutes without an intermission was wise, for without a plot, there’s very little reason to come back for a second act. After the joys of Karam’s story have settled, we’re left wondering what the play was actually about and what Karam was trying to tell us.
To circumvent this lack, casting Santino Fontana as Joseph is a stroke of genius. I imagine watching Fontana onstage is akin to what watching Laurette Taylor’s legendary work must have been like. He doesn’t seem to be acting, but simply occurring as a human on stage, reacting and responding to the world around him in real time. He makes all the right choices; it’s a role beautifully orchestrated, yet the audience is never aware of the orchestration. His subtext is so clear that you almost think you can hear the other end of the phone line during his phone monologues. When he does finally let loose with rage at a family member or open up his heart in the final scene, it is all that more moving. Because Fontana creates such a compelling, fascinating Joseph, Karam’s lack of a plot seems less of an issue. On the other hand, what an even more amazing performance Fontana might have given!
While Fontana’s work is the centerpiece of a very lovely evening of theatre, the rest of the cast also gives wonderful performances. But unfortunately, as they have no opportunity to grow their own stories, they exist more as devises, barometers to reveal Joseph’s growth.
The Roundabout production as a whole is competent but lacks articulation. Peter DuBois, who directed the prior Boston production at Huntington Theatre Company, stages the work with a light, confident touch. But his work collaborating with his designers was less than successful. Anna Louizos heavy brick-wall set design and Japhy Weideman’s severe lighting design are a bit drab and on the nose for this world, but they allow Karam’s short scenes to move swiftly. It struck this reviewer as odd, however, that a play that balances pathos and humor so nicely would have such a sad, dour look.
Quibbles aside, Sons of the Prophet is heartily recommend. It’s a little early to gauge, but it would be no surprise if Sons of the Prophet ends up being one of the best new plays to open in New York City this season. Stephen Karam’s world is full of so much compassion that he is clearly rooting for humanity. And like Santino Fontana’s Joseph, humanity is in very good hands.
photos by Joan Marcus
Sons of the Prophet
The Laura Pels Theatre at the Miriam and Harold Steinberg Center for Theatre
scheduled to end on December 23
for tickets, visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/offbroadway/sonsoftheprophet/