Perhaps you’ve noticed that the onstage language used to portray “real life situations” (think plays anywhere from Ibsen to Neil Simon to recent Tony winner All the Way) bears little resemblance to the language you and I use in actual real life situations.
Concerned with getting their point across, vocal tics like overlapping, interruptions, and mentally losing one’s place get tossed away, not to mention the maddening difficulty of conveying those tics as an actor.
The riotous yet moving brilliance of Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet comes from embracing jolting and hyperrealistic language to create stunningly real and relatable characters.
For a play whose language is the star, this DC premiere from Theater J begins in a surprising way : no words, just sound and movement. A simple projection shows the silhouette of a deer, coming closer and closer and closer, then tires screeching. Then blackout.
This terrifying incident is as close as we get to the patriarch of the Douaihy family. And the family strife that results from this car accident (and the patriarch’s death) forms the spine of Sons of the Prophet. His son Joseph (played by an exceptionally present Chris Dinolfo) struggles to keep the family together under the weight of obligation to his infuriatingly and adorably narcissistic boss, his own deteriorating body, and his family: those surviving, recently dead, and long dead.
The tropes are nothing new, but their execution make them feel new. Brigid Cleary’s blissfully unaware portrayal of Joseph’s overbearing boss Gloria drives the comedy in Sons of the Prophet. Their conversation crackles with fits and starts, interruptions and silences. With only occasional caricature, Karam’s text and Cleary’s guffaw-inducing performance are to stifling awkwardness what Oscar Wilde is to refined repartee.
What sounds like off-the-cuff dialogue is composed. Karam and these actors show struggles for power in a halting interruption, a true intention in a sentence unfinished, or a plea for escape in a too-long silence. Director Gregg Henry conducts this composition with balance, keeping the authenticity of the difficult language while managing the overall pace of the show in a way that makes this story feel well-made and complete.
The entire cast’s deft touch with Karam’s language and the tight focus of the production design recommends Henry’s directing as top class, clean and simple, in the way that a high end restaurant dish is simple. Good directing creates simplicity and clarity borne of effort and restraint. Sons of the Prophet is an example of great directing, finding subtlety in simplicity and complexity in clarity.
The performances from the cast of DC locals are top class as well. Michael Willis as Uncle Bill balances touching and raucous scenes with a bracing dose of reality. And while everyone may have an Uncle Bill whose crumbling executive function makes him hilariously and frustratingly inappropriate, not everyone’s Uncle Bill will have Willis’ deep stare, a stare that tells everyone who sees it that this man’s mind is moving a million miles a minute in a language that you will never comprehend. This depth pulls at Joseph with the weight of legacy from his Lebanese heritage and the more immediate inheritance of heading the family.
Tony Strowd Hamilton plays Joseph’s little brother Charles and his interactions with both Dinolfo’s Joseph and Jaysen Wright’s Vin (who caused the opening car accident) show this cast’s keen grip on Karam’s language. Hamilton and Wright play high schoolers, and their adolescent diction may be some of the hardest to handle in the play. But they find ways of making the repetitions of teenage vernacular not feel repetitive. Both are fish out of water, Charles for his open sexuality and Vin for his race, and their stilted language reflects that.
The crux of the play, though, is Dinolfo’s performance as Joseph. He carries both the tragic weight of the pressures Joseph faces and the comedically hopeless struggle against those pressures with equal aplomb. Not only does he show skill with complex language, but that language comes from his whole body. Without his ability to forge real onstage connections with every one of his castmates, this play would be lost. In him there is a perfect protagonist, likable but able to hate, relatable but faced with epic and varied challenges.
SONS OF THE PROPHET
November 18 – December 20, 2015
1529 Sixteenth Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036
1 hour, 45 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $27 – $67
Wednesdays thru Sundays
The power of this play emerges from those challenges and their variety. Sons of the Prophet is a family drama where the threat of Joseph’s family unraveling drives him. It is a political play, too, where a lone man fights against the bureaucratic tide of the establishment. It is a social drama, where the complex intersections of culture, race, disability, and sexuality form a tapestry for Joseph to unravel. Sons of the Prophet is a coming-of-age story as well, where Joseph learns the true and painful price of responsibility over others. It is a cringe comedy based on smart language and skilled timing.
But can it be all of these? Of course it can. The play’s multi-faceted nature allows for both in-the-moment experience and afterplay analysis, nudging it up from bright to brilliant. Theater J’s offering here is rare and shouldn’t be missed: one of the sharpest plays around with a fantastic lead, strong supporting cast, and delectable directing. If you’ve only got one ticket to buy this holiday season, pick Sons of the Prophet.
Sons of the Prophet by Stephen Karam . Directed by Gregg Henry . Featuring Vanessa Bradchulis, Brigid Cleary, Chris Dinolfo, Sam Ludwig, Cam Magee, Tony Strowd Hamilton, Michael Willis, and Jaysen Wright. Set Design: Luciana Stecconi. Lighting Design: Kyle Grant . Composition & Sound Design: Patrick Calhoun . Costume Design: Collin Ranney . Props Design: Britney Mongold . Stage Manager: Karen Currie . Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Alan Katz.