“We’re like the Kennedys without the sex appeal” quips 29-year-old Joseph Douaihy about his woe-beset blue-collar Eastern Pennsylvania family in Stephen Karam’s extraordinary new play Sons Of The Prophet, now getting its Los Angeles Premiere at Hollywood’s The Blank, as fine an example as one could wish for of just how crucial the Los Angeles 99-Seat Plan is to our city’s one-of-a-kind intimate theater scene.
Joe (Adam Silver) does indeed have enough on his and his family’s table to rival the Kennedys, albeit with paper plates standing in for finest china, beginning with his own mysterious knee ailment, one that could portend more “global” consequences pending test results.
Working part-time for his “seriously deranged” boss Gloria (Tamara Zook), a former publishing star fallen from grace following the release of a trumped-up Holocaust memoir (“Would you know the height of a concentration camp wall?”), has provided Joe with much-needed—but still insufficient—medical insurance. Still, no policy can possibly help with the other slings and arrows life has thrown the Douaihys’ way.
Joe’s nerdy high school student brother Charles (Braxton Molinaro) would seem to have his act a bit more together than his older bro, but being a gay teen can’t be easy in Bethlehem Steel country, even for one following in a gay older brother’s footsteps. (As one old biddy puts it more than once, “What are the odds?”)
Joe and Charles certainly have it better than their progressively more infirm 78-year-old live-in uncle Bill (Jack Laufer), a cantankerous mix of familial love, religious devotion, and generational racism and xenophobia, who insists he’s moved in to take care of the boys when it’s patently clear that it is they who are taking care of him. (They’ve even converted a downstairs closet into a bathroom so that Bill won’t have to climb stairs, no matter that the door won’t shut on his undies-round-the-ankles legs or muffle the sounds he’s making from within.)
And as if things weren’t already bad enough, Sons Of The Prophet opens with a car crash, one that sends the brothers’ behind-the-wheel dad to the ER and may well be the cause of the heart attack that kills him a week into his hospitalization.
Also featured among the cast of principals is half-black, foster care-raised high school football star Vin (Mychal Thompson), whose teammates-prompted prank forced Joe and Charles’s father off the road and into a tree, and who must, like Rabbit Hole’s Jason, deal with having wreaked inadvertent havoc on a now grieving family.
Fortunately for Vin, the judge presiding over the teen’s case has ruled to postpone his time in juvenile detention until after football season, a decision which sits none too well with a decidedly unsympathetic Uncle Bill, and one that has prompted the arrival in town of 28-year-old journalist Timothy (Erik Odom) to report on the case. (Since Timothy, too, is “What are the odds?” gay, the likelihood of sexual sparks igniting between him and Joe would seem to be high indeed.)
Blank Theatre regulars will recall 30something playwright Karam from his previous smash Speech & Debate, the wildly funny tale of three quirky Salem, Oregon teens and a reflection on hypocritical politicians, “ex-gay” ministries, and the importance of coming out.
The multi-generational Sons Of The Prophet, a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and winner of the New York Drama Critics Circle, Outer Critics Circle & Lucille Lortel Awards for Best Play, offers Karam a broader canvas on which to paint and audiences are the beneficiaries of this beautifully written, outrageously funny, seriously thought-provoking, frequently expectation-defying, and unexpectedly moving new piece of contemporary theater.
It helps enormously that The Blank has brought back Michael Matthews to direct with his accustomed imagination, perception, sensitivity, and flair. (Honestly, is there a finer stage director in the entire USA?)
It helps equally that the 99-Seat Plan has allowed a 53-seat theater to secure the talents of six Equity actors in a cast of eight. (Without the plan, there would, I fear, be no L.A. Premiere of Sons Of The Prophet at The Blank, and quite possibly nowhere other than community theater,)
The always amazing Silver does some of his most dynamic, most subtly shaded work to date as Joseph, and he is supported by as superb a cast as you will find anywhere in the country.
The charming (and possibly wily) Timothy gives Odom the chance to show off an adult side following his Scenie-winning Dramatic Debut Of The Year performance as a tormented teen in Rogue Machine’s A Bright New Boise. And speaking of debut performances, recent NYC-to-LA transplant Molinaro could simply not be better—funnier, sweeter, or more appealing and touching—than he is as Charles. The terrific Thompson is also a find, revealing all of Vin’s insecurities and fears and hopes and dreams.
A quartet of stage and screen vets complete the Sons Of The Prophet cast to perfection.
The uniquely gifted Zook is the very definition of sublime as the wacky, well-meaning, weirdly endearing Gloria. Laufer is simply brilliant in his scene-stealing yet deeply felt turn as the outrageous Uncle Bill. Ellen Karsten and Irene Roseen prove too that like wine, great actors simply improve with age, the duo stealing their own scenes as a pair of chatty school board members and assorted cameos. (Roseen in particular dazzles as a hilariously outspoken local ticket agent and the retired kindergarten teacher whose scene with her former pupil Joe gives Sons Of The Prophet its exquisite coda.)
I like the fact that scenic designer Rachel Watson’s set isn’t as “spare” as Karam suggests in his script, the accumulated odds-and-ends of a family’s life together filling the two-level playing area, and like the best Blank designs, revealing hidden secrets along the way. Luke Moyer’s lighting is as good as it gets, upping the dramatic ante as does Cricket S. Myer’s as-always accomplished sound design. Allison Dillard gets top marks too for her character-defining costumes and properties designer Michael O’Hara for filling the stage with all the aforementioned paraphernalia.
June Carryl is assistant director. Marcedes L. Clanton is stage manager and Jillian Mayo assistant stage manager. Casting is by Erica Bream and Cara Chute. Sons Of The Prophet is produced by Sarah Allyn Bauer, Daniel Henning, and Noah Wyle. Aaron Fors, James Michael Hughes, Evan Martinez, and Katie Woerner are associate producers.
Understudies Shauna Bloom, Alex Brooks, Max Bunzel, Lisa Costanza, Ted Heyck, Joey Hirsch, Wolfie Trausch, and Dale Waddington take center stage on Thursdays February 26 and March 5.
Stephen Karam’s Sons Of The Prophet held me in its spell from its breathtakingly visual opening sequence to the simplicity of its transcendent final scene, alternately laughing and wiping away tears along the way. It is as memorable an intimate theater production as you or I will see all year.
Click here to read my review of the Alternate Cast performance.
The Blank Theatre Company’s 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Boulevard, in Hollywood.
February 15, 2015
Photos: Anne McGrath