Tragedy and comedy, the forms that kept the theater alive for so many centuries, are waning. Or maybe “blurring” would be a better word. Like the genes in some particularly restive strip of aesthetic DNA, the two elements have always shown a penchant for recombining, bringing forth crossbreeds that survived alongside, and often overshadowed, the two basic building blocks. Modern playwrights have invented names to cover these queasy minglings of dark and light: black comedy, slapstick tragedy, tragifarce.
Inevitably, given the wild changes the world has gone through in the past two decades, a new, peculiar, but apparently hardy hybrid has sprung up. Take, for example, Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet (Laura Pels Theatre), a prime specimen of what we should probably call “tragitcom.” Not tragicomedy, you understand; that’s ancient news. In the work of youthful playwrights like Karam—he wrote 2007’s much-acclaimed Speech & Debate—a tragic sensibility and high-serious ambitions merge, not with comedy in the classical sense, but with its bastardized commercial offspring, TV sitcom. American playwriting in the present decade derives less from King Lear than from Norman Lear.
I state this as a fact to be faced, not a criticism. Karam is knowledgeable, skillful, and painstaking. His script, provided to reviewers, leads off with two epigraphs from Chekhov, plus a flurry of cautions to the actors to ground every moment as realistically as possible. The cast of Peter DuBois’s production abides by these injunctions so earnestly that at certain points, you can barely hear their low-key conversation. In the climactic public-meeting scene, DuBois adroitly uses half-heard muttering for a variety of comic effects.
While the tragic pain Karam means to convey is always visible, his quirky story, skitteringly told, makes tragedy seem almost weightless. The constant use of cutely eccentric details suggests a sitcom producer’s hunt for marketable angles. Dreams of big money and big fame dog what’s essentially an anecdote about little people stuck in an awkward little situation, as if Karam, despite his demonstrable seriousness, had bought so deeply into the notions hawked by today’s celebrity culture that he didn’t notice the existence of other possible values in American life. Apparently, for the generation that grew up from infancy with the idiot box on, dreams of fame and money are all that exist.
Such dreams, of course, rarely come true. Certainly those of Joseph Douaihy (Santino Fontana) have only come to a standstill. A local marathon champ in Pennsylvania’s steel country with Olympic aspirations, Joseph is burdened with both a mysterious, debilitating condition that makes him wear knee braces and, when the action starts, a dying father, seriously injured in a freak accident brought about by a prankish high school football star (Jonathan Louis Dent). His father’s incapacitation leaves Joseph responsible for his hearing-impaired, high school-age brother (Chris Perfetti) and his aging, ailing, crankily outspoken uncle (Yusef Bulos).
A seemingly needless burden tops this heap of troubles: The Douaihys are Maronite Christians, first-generation Lebanese Americans with a distant family connection to a man whose name rings cash-register bells in publishers’ hearts: Kahlil Gibran, a/k/a The Prophet, still one of the world’s best-selling authors. Joseph’s employer, Gloria (Joanna Gleason), a displaced New Yorker with a tiny book-distribution business, a large inheritance, and a massive case of ADD, sees Joseph’s family history as marketable. Joseph’s stubborn pride would reject the notion instantly, but Gloria equals health insurance.
When the hassle over the football star’s prank becomes a public controversy, add an ambitious young reporter (Charles Socarides) with a vibe for Joseph and a nose for a salable human interest story, and you get—well, you get the oddly mixed experience of Karam’s play. Inviting us to feel an inexplicably intense sorrow, he constantly interrupts its growth by focusing on sitcom-like mix-ups or arcane familial details. Nitpicky questions constantly creep into your mind as you watch (like exactly how feisty do people get when they’ve just had a spinal tap?); instead of coalescing, the experience tends to crumble away. It’s not the excellent cast’s fault. Fontana sustains his difficult role most movingly, Bulos is acerbically crisp, and Gleason supplies a wonderful, convincingly real tossed salad of emotional impulses. But is it dramatically meaningful? We’ll be right back.