It hasn’t been a vintage year for new writing, certainly not in mainstream venues where there have been notably more misses than hits. Hampstead Theatre’s latest venture is in the former category, a middling American import billed as a comedy with a focus on identity that suffers from a dramatic identity crisis. Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet is not exactly new either, first staged in 2011, but it makes its European debut here by starting a lot of conversations that it doesn’t manage to finish and while there is solid investment in the Douaihys, the central Lebanese-American family coming to terms with their recent grief, the play never quite translates into the zippy family comedy it aspires to be or the detailed analysis of personal, cultural and sexual identity that are the basis for many of its scenes.
The second new US play to open this season, like the over-praised Eureka Day, Karam’s writing has a sparring quality, creating combative situations in which its characters can interact. But beneath the surface scenario, neither writer digs deep enough into their creations to properly underpin the messaging. And while Eureka Day was enlivened by a brilliantly comic online chat group – which notably was a sideline scene and did not involve or enhance the role of its protagonists – Sons of the Prophet is certainly lighter on laughs, drawing most of them from the ineptitude of its characters rather than than the situations in which they find themselves which are, on the whole, universally tragic.
There is certainly brevity in the writing, and, like Jonathan Spector’s school-based play, words are carefully controlled. It is a feature of American drama in fact that the characters rarely say things that aren’t relevant to the plot or its psychology in some way. It is a style that comes from those great mid-century novels, all tightly honed prose, antiheroes and utilitarian literary structures, something that since became a feature of US playwriting using a fixed number of scenes between and outside of which the world of the characters really exist. The audience then is given illustrative excerpts from which much should be inferred or imaged about their fuller lives – see also Theresa Rebeck’s Mad House, another so-so US comedy reaching the West End this year.
For Karam’s play there is a singular dramatic end point and within that several narrative hares that are set running with different degrees of success. The primary driver focuses on the aftermath of the Douaihy patriarch’s death from a heart attack a week after he swerved off the road to avoid a plastic deer placed there as a prank by a school football star. The extent to which these two events are aligned possibly even cause and effect, are debated by the family and Karam creates two moments where the grieving relatives and the rising sports star intersect; at an agreed meeting at their home and a final community hearing where both sides can give an opinion about whether the young man should pay immediately for his carelessness or be allowed to complete the season before attending juvenile detention. Neither scene is ultimately fruitful, certainly not in a dramatic sense, as the writer is too distracted by family arguments and weaving in the subplots to fully investigate the moral dilemma here and its consequences for various people included in these events.
First, Karam sends the perpetrator to the Douaihy family home at Christmas and having previously refused to entertain the notion, he suddenly appears in their living room with little explanation about why they changed their minds – a feature of this type of American drama being the snapshots of life with big changes of direction happening in between. A potentially interesting conversation is then abruptly stopped as Vin is reading a letter of apology and Uncle Bill is getting exorcised about the nerve of the youngster. Instead of pursuing the evident disagreement between the Douaihys about the value of this meeting, Vin’s physical presence and a pressure to reasonably respond to the young man, Karam decides to create a subdued farce in which exasperated characters come and go but with little plot or comic purpose.
It would have been far more satisfying here to pursue the original conversation a little longer to understand why Bill is so unwilling to accept this as a tragic accident – what has happened to him in the past to shape this absolutism in his reaction – and why younger brother Charles is so eager to forgive and even befriend Vin, someone he clearly already knows and seems to admire. And where does this leave lead character Joseph who is too distracted by other needs to give any real thought to the meeting? What of the football star himself, what has prompted this contrition, is it genuine guilt or a ploy to ensure a reduced sentence, what was the context of the original prank and what might guilt do to his character and his prospects in the months and year ahead?
The second interaction comes during the play’s finale at a community event chaired by two unexplained gossipy women who give anyone the right to speak. It is unclear whether this is a social or legal set-up but it establishes a freedom to give speeches while the various subplots crossing through Joseph’s story arc are used as disruptors, intended like the house scene to build to a farcical pitch. Most of this is a rehash of opinions we have already heard, Charles offering generous support to Vin, Uncle Bill chastising him and Vin himself nervously apologising and trying to justify his actions with promises of future remedy. What we don’t get is any new information or a resolution that attends to the plays’s central dilemma, whether or not the Douaihys should forgive Vin.
Across this Karam instead brings in the subplot characters, journalist Timothy who adds little to proceedings except to prove journalists are as mercenary as Joseph always suspected, and Joseph’s depressive boss Gloria who crashes the meeting to make a vague speech while either high or drunk but irrelevant to Vin’s case. All of this is presided over by two members of a Board that the audience has never met before but who are given authority and judgmental asides that, again, don’t really contribute to the outcomes of this story. What the Board is for, what their decision-making process is and why there are only two of them is never explained.
All of this is meant to shed light on Joseph, and Karam devotes most of Sons of the Prophet to the establishment of this character, a man with unspecified and undiagnosed physical pain in various parts of his body for which he is undergoing medical tests that he cannot afford. There is something in this character’s struggles to balance the needs of his family including a cantankerous undiluted uncle and perhaps naive younger brother, people he feels responsible for, with his own desires and wants. Joseph is never given the chance to express his own feelings about his father’s death or even to really process them because he’s constantly dealing with other people’s reactions as well as navigating personal issues with relatively little support.
Joseph is an interesting if not fully developed character and it’s not always easy to see where Karam is taking him and why. A former long-distance runner whose fitness level is not what it was, Joseph’s biggest storyline involves these medical test and their results which the audience is invited to observe as he seeks a final understanding of his ailments. Calls to doctors are the primary reason for his distraction during important scenes such as Vin’s visit, but this is left unresolved as Joseph ends the play still performing the shoulder exercise it began with. There is a brief suggestion these may be psychosomatic symptoms but the accusation comes too late in the play and without any sufficient context to leave the audience questioning what they have seen.
Likewise, the sexuality of Joseph and brother Charles is mentioned several times but for no real purpose. Joseph has a brief affair with journalist Timothy who he meets in a bus station and later turns to to escape his family. But indications that they met at inter-scholastic cross-country tournaments and the convenience of Timothy’s appearance at that exact moment are not followed through. Similarly, boss Gloria instigates conversations about Joseph’s Lebanese identity in the opening scene and her hope to write a book based on his family connection to The Prophet writer Kahlil Gibran. A creation who admits to barely leaving his home town of Nazareth Pennsylvania never mind the US, there are some really interesting debates to have about multiracial second and third generation identities emerging from cultural heritage rather than geographical knowledge of, in this case, Lebanon, and what that means for individuals navigating dual identities in the twenty-first century. But instead both Timothy and even Gloria who has considerably more personality, are ciphers for an incomplete assessment of Joseph.
Karam uses the chapters of The Prophet to shape his scene titles such as On Pain, On Talking and On the Home which are displayed across Samal Blak’s largely black box set. Creating a triangular space, Blak places the action on two levels with revolving mini stages that appear in the walls on the upper level when needed. But much of the time, they are not required and with a semi staged approach taken to generating the locations of the Douaihy family, it accidentally results in an even greater sense of disconnection within a story taking place largely in a great black void where perhaps a projected set would better fill the space with the life this play is trying to represent.
Irfan Shamji well represents all of Joseph’s interconnected issues, taking his physical pains consistently through the performance and exploring the various frustrations with family, medical and personal issues that plague him. It’s a shame that Karam’s text doesn’t give Shamji more to work with in terms of conflicted – or perhaps even disinterested – identities but Shamji really anchors this production with a performance that retains both sympathy and uncertainty about some of Joseph’s motives as written. His fellow family members are less rounded but Raad Rawi as irascible Uncle Bill and Eric Sirakian as the kindlier Charles bring them to life. Poor Jack Holden, though has almost nothing to do as journalist Timothy while Juliet Cowan takes a thinly written part and generates some great comic moments through her characteristion of Gloria as a convincingly steely but equally wispy boss who spots an opportunity to exploit the Douaihy’s pain.
Bijan Sheibani’s production never quite generates enough energy to sustain momentum across its 1 hour and 45-minute running time or build to those seemingly farcical moments of character overlap and emotional chaos that the text indicates. But Sons of the Prophet feels incomplete as a play which makes for a less satisfying experience for the audience and a missed opportunity to really drill into the layers of identity that these characters offer.
Sons of the Prophet is at the Hampstead Theatre until 14 January with tickets from £18. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.
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