Santino Fontana and Joanna Gleason
in Sons of the Prophet
(© Joan Marcus)
Santino Fontana and Joanna Gleason
in Sons of the Prophet
(© Joan Marcus)
Laughing at someone else's suffering may not be the most polite thing to do, but it's the most logical response to Stephen Karam's keenly observed and often hilarious new play, Sons of the Prophet, presented by Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theater under Peter DuBois' direction. However, the play's abundant humor is balanced by a deeply felt empathy for the play's central character, who is brought vividly to life by the extraordinary Santino Fontana.

The actor portrays Joseph Douaihy, a Lebanese-American gay man living in Pennsylvania who is dealing with a host of problems, including the recent death of his father and his own declining health due to a mysterious illness that causes him chronic pain. Joseph works for a possibly insane but wealthy woman named Gloria (Joanna Gleason) so that he can get health insurance, but even then his medical bills seem to be piling up.

In addition, Joseph must deal with the needs of his younger (also gay) brother Charles (Chris Perfetti) and elderly uncle, Bill (Yusef Bulos); a possible romance with an ambitious reporter named Timothy (Charles Socarides); and a meeting with Vin (Jonathan Louis Dent), the high school athlete whose irresponsible actions contributed to his father's demise.

Fontana creates a layered characterization, conveying volumes with subtle shifts in body language and vocal expression. He shows us Joseph's fears and frustrations, as well as the character's sense of humor and strength of will.

Gleason brings an eccentric warmth to her portrayal of Gloria, and her initial scene with Fontana is full of the kind of edgy humor that allows the actors to set the right tone for the remainder of the production. Perfetti is absolutely delightful, bringing a touch of flamboyance to his role, while also revealing Charles' feelings of insecurity.

Bill's politically incorrect and opinionated persona is often fodder for laughter within the play, but Bulos' performance also allows us to see the character's humanity and deep abiding love and concern for the wellbeing of his family. Socarides shares a strong chemistry with Fontana, even as he projects just the right amount of arrogance and self-centeredness that will complicate any kind of meaningful relationship between their characters. Dee Nelson and Lizbeth Mackay both play multiple parts to good effect.

Unfortunately, Dent is given a somewhat thankless and insufficiently developed role, one made even more problematic with the delivery of Vin's speech at a community forum, which is played for laughs in a way that feels more mean-spirited than the character-based humor that Karam has so carefully constructed for much of the play.

The show's title refers to the Douaihy family's distant relation to Lebanese-American author Kahlil Gibran, who is most famous for The Prophet, a work of spiritual literature. Gibran's book figures into the plot of Karam's play, and its inspirational nature serves as an ironic counterpoint to the difficulties that Joseph encounters. There are no easy solutions or even concrete answers to some fundamental questions for Joseph. And yet, the production does still allow a glimmer of hope to shine through, particularly in its beautifully executed final sequence.