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New play explores the funnier side of suffering

Health insurance premiums. Degenerative disease. Car crashes. Aging. Death. Romantic betrayal.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Health insurance premiums. Degenerative disease. Car crashes. Aging. Death. Romantic betrayal.

There are dark comedies, and there are really dark comedies. "Sons of the Prophet," Stephen Karam's absorbing new play that opened Thursday off Broadway, is definitely in the latter category.

Luckily, the young man dealing with the above-mentioned scourges is portrayed with such a core of integrity and decency by the appealing actor Santino Fontana that the production overcomes an occasionally unwieldy script and a less-than-totally-satisfying ending.

Off-Broadway theatergoers may remember Karam from his popular "Speech & Debate"; Building on that success, the Roundabout Theatre Company commissioned a new work from the young playwright.

This time, Karam has gone to his own upbringing for inspiration: The play centers on a family of Lebanese-American Maronite Catholics in Pennsylvania, just like his own.

Only the Douaihy family seems to suffer misfortune upon misfortune. "We're like the Kennedys — without the sex appeal," Joseph quips in a typically wry moment.

The play also centers on a real-life event, in which a couple of high school football players placed a deer decoy on an Ohio road a few years back and waited to watch cars swerve. The inevitable crash left two young people seriously injured. A judge's ruling that the players could finish out the season before jail divided the town in controversy.

Here, the victim is an older man — Joseph's father. His two sons are left to grieve and clean up the mess, which includes taking in and caring for their aging, politically incorrect uncle.

But it's really Joseph (Fontana), the older son, who must bear the many burdens, which include an exasperatingly nosy and scatterbrained boss, Gloria — played with a delicious dryness by the ever-entertaining Joanna Gleason.

Gloria, a publisher desperate for a hit, is obsessed with the fact that Joseph is ever so distantly descended from Khalil Gibran. That's the "Prophet" in the title — Gibran's mega-selling 1923 book of poetic essays. Light bulb! Gloria sees a book opportunity.

Joseph is appalled. He's only working for the health insurance, and he needs it: A former track star, he's been having unexplained, terrible chronic pain.

On top of it all, Joseph needs a spinal tap. Oh, and he isn't sure whether that cute reporter guy he's interested in really wants him, or just wants access to the story of his father's accident.

Things really get messy when Vin, the kid who caused the accident in the first place (a sensitive performance by Jonathan Louis Dent) shows up at the house, throwing the family into turmoil. And then that nosy Gloria can't stay away...

Effective direction by Peter DuBois keeps the multiple strands of Karam's plot moving nicely, though there are pockets where the dialogue seems to drag. Lighter touches abound, including a priceless tussle between Joseph and an automated phone answering system, and a truly loopy announcer in local bus terminal.

Everything escalates toward a major penultimate scene, almost madcap in its intensity, at a public meeting that uses the entire theater as an auditorium.

Some may feel the play, an earlier version of which played this spring in Boston, ends on a whimper, not a bang. But the end does contain a piercing observation from Joseph, delivered not with anger but with resignation and a touch of his black humor:

"To make it in this country, you either need to be an extraordinary human being or make extraordinarily bad life decisions. The rest of us, not so much."

Can suffering be funny? Maybe sometimes. What Karam seems to ultimately say, though, is that suffering can at least produce a little wisdom along the way.