Cygnet Theatre’s San Diego premiere of Sons of the Prophet could be regarded as two hours of schadenfreude, the enjoyment in the suffering of another. In Stephen Karam’s 2011 play the unfortunate one is 29-year-old Joseph Douaihy (Alex Hoeffler). He’s lost his father after an auto accident caused by a high school jock’s prank. He works for a certifiable nutcase just so he can get adequate health insurance – which he needs because his once-athletic body is deteriorating, muscle by muscle. He’s suddenly head of a household that includes his precocious, hearing-disabled brother and an uncle who bellows racial insensitivities and takes dumps in a living-room closet converted into a toilet. Oh, and Joseph’s also coming to terms with his homosexuality.
So why do we laugh? We’re not really enjoying poor Joseph’s suffering, but Sons of the Prophet (the title comes from the Douaihys being descendants of “The Prophet” author Kahlil Gibran) is a dark family drama wrapped as a comedy. Even so, the laughter should be more uneasy and uncertain than it was in the crowd on opening night. Maybe the folks were getting genuine kicks out of Joseph’s fear, grief, humiliation and anger. Go figure.
Though Sons of the Prophet, directed by Rob Lutfy, is energized by live-wire character turns that include Maggie Carney as Joseph’s boss, Gloria, and Dylan James Mulvaney as younger brother Charles, it is Hoeffler’s show, as Joseph. He is the core and the conscience of the story, whether he’s trying to understand his failing health, his sexuality or his mourning. Even as you wish that old Uncle Bill would just shut up and that Gloria would take a Xanax and chill, you feel the unsettled heart of Joseph skipping beats in the midst of the madness, and you want the best for him.
The changing scenes are framed by projected references to Gibran’s ruminations – a thoughtful touch. Yet the pace of the play early on is overly conversational and sluggish. The action and the insights ramp up in the second act, which is highlighted by a school board meeting to end all school board meetings. It’s followed by a quietly affecting conclusion.
Gibran may be a cliché, but the contemplative Sons of the Prophet is not.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat