Timing is everything. And so, days after Hampstead Theatre loses its artistic director, having lost first its Arts Council subsidy and then — apparently — its focus on new writing, it comes up with this tremendous new tragicomedy by the American writer Stephen Karam.
OK, “new” as in new to this country: Sons of the Prophet first appeared in 2011. It predates Karam’s Broadway hit The Humans, which played here in 2018 before he directed a film version. And, for that matter, a follow-up statement from the theatre this week suggests that it’s aiming to fund a focus on new and contemporary work rather than an abrupt about-turn. We’ll see.
Meanwhile, a show that, never mind the BlackBerries wielded by its mid-2000s protagonists, is a timeless delight. Yet it takes a few minutes to tune into Bijan Sheibani’s poised, plausible production. Is it being satirical or sympathetic? There’s certainly a lot of information to process as it introduces our 29-year-old Lebanese-American hero Joseph (Irfan Shamji). He fends off intrusive inquiries about his health and his ancestry alike from his pained New Yorker boss, a one-woman faux pas factory called Gloria (Juliet Cowan) who has moved here to rural Pennsylvania after her husband’s suicide.
It’s wry stuff, suffused with a sense of grief and grievance. Sardonic Joseph has lost his athletics career to injury. Then he and his half-deaf younger brother Charles (Eric Sirakian) lose their father after an absurd road accident. Meanwhile their ailing uncle Bill (Raad Rawi) is losing his patience with a culture of oversharing.
The high-school football star Vin (Raphael Akuwudike) is sorry for the prank that injured their father, yet is desperate not to lose his sports career. His two apology speeches are mini-masterpieces of “will this do?”. And yet, while Karam packs his characters with foibles he isn’t cynical. Nobody is a villain, everyone wants something from another character — not least Timothy (Jack Holden), the TV news reporter who clicks romantically with Joseph but wants his story — but somehow they all tear little chunks out of everyone else too. You know, like life.
Heavens this is good writing, beautifully realised. “At the risk of stating the obvious, all the characters are equally human,” Karam writes in the text. Yes, he adds, even the ones who say stupid things. The sense of grief is palpable, yet so too is the sense of making do and getting on.
Samal Blak’s artfully spare two-level set uses a minimum of scenery against its black backdrop to make the settings instantly evocative. The acting is terrific. True to the playwright’s request, nobody caricatures, everyone hits the seriocomic sweet spot.
Caustically funny, richly human, Sons of the Prophet somehow feels familiar and not quite like anything you’ve seen before. More, please, from its author and from this theatre.
4 stars out of 5
Stephen Karam’s eccentric comedy about two brothers struggling with their dad’s bizarre death is a real gem of a play
At first, Stephen Karam’s grimly brilliant comedy about pain and loss might not seem very festive. But sadness is as much a part of Christmas as turkey or eggnog, as people long for the lost cathedral-like shelter of the family they had as a kid. ‘Sons of the Prophet’ follows two parentless young brothers dealing with the unfamiliar interpersonal architecture following their dad’s death, and that alone feels pretty season-appropriate, even before you consider the fact that it’s very, very funny, contains the odd bit of gorgeous choral music and even has a dinky light-up tree in one corner of the stage.
Joseph and Charles’s dad has died just before Christmas in a freak accident. A high-schooler put a stuffed deer in the middle of a road as a prank and he swerved to avoid it, dying of a heart attack a week later. Now they’ve wound up caring for their doddery, devout uncle Bill, and for adjudicating in a moral dilemma: how should that high-schooler be punished? Does he deserve to lose a potential sports scholarship to college over a stupid joke? It’s fertile ground, especially with reporter Timothy sniffing around for scandal, but Karam’s oddly structured, hour-and-40-minute play doesn’t really explore it. This piece is too gentle, too deeply human to sit with the idea of punishing the kid for long. Instead, the hearing provides an excuse for a set-piece that allows each member of this little community to air their own unique flavour of dysfunction.
And what a lot of dysfunction there is to air. Director Bijan Sheibani’s closely naturalistic production is packed with memorably weird performances. Irfan Shamji and Eric Sirakian have an immaculate rapport as twentysomething brothers Joseph and Charles: they constantly talk over each other, Sirakian’s little bro needling away at Shamji’s suffering big sibling like a wasp buzzing round a bear’s ear, their tensions culminating in a hilariously painful-looking fight in a hospital bed. As Bill, Raad Rawi is the cantankerous custodian of tradition, maintaining links to their Lebanese Christian heritage (the family’s part of a division of the Eastern Church called the Maronites) by clinging to the gory stories of saints, their perseverance through suffering offering comfort in his. And Juliet Cowan delivers a standout performance as Gloria, the comically clueless wealthy publisher who’s paying for Joseph’s health insurance, her purse strings loosened by her obsession with his Maronite heritage and the solutions to her own spiritual malaise it seems to hold.
Another Karam play, ‘The Humans’, was a big hit for Hampstead Theatre in 2018, so it’s easy to see why it’s hosting a belated European premiere for this earlier work (which premiered in 2011 in New York). ‘Sons of the Prophet’ might be a decade-old play set in an obscure Christian community in rural Pennsylvania but there’s so much that’ll speak to a UK audience in 2022: its insight into the terrors of navigating a failing health system, its sharp comment about class and tokenism in the arts, its exploration of how these brothers keep stumbling along as the world dumps more and more pain at their door. ‘All will be well,’ says the refrain to their father’s favourite hymn, but it clearly won’t. Still, it’s a tribute to Karam’s skill as a playwright that so much hope and humour shine through this broken but colourful stained-glass-window of a play.
Making its European premiere following a Pulitzer nomination, Stephen Karam‘s Sons Of The Prophet opened this week at Hampstead Theatre. For a comedy play which literally starts with a deer-in-the-headlights moment, its strength lies in the instantaneous relatability of the many middle-America characters who by the end have each experienced or conveyed their own darkly comic emotional crossroads.
Sons of the Prophet at Hampstead Theatre
A prank (involving a deer effigy), results in the road-accident death of Joseph Douaihy’s Lebanese-born Maronite Christian father. Living in rural Pennsylvania, he is left to guide his younger brother whilst coming to terms with the painful knee condition which has curtailed his promising athletics career and (since his father’s death), the need to shelter their dependent elderly uncle.
If this were not enough, his depressed and lonely employer – a book publisher who could provide him with the medical insurance to treat those knees – isn’t beneath stooping to bribery when she realises Joseph’s family could be the source of the next best seller. Has anyone yet mentioned that both Joseph and his brother are gay, as is the ambitious regional TV newscaster who one evening finds himself at the same bus stop as the strapping former athlete with strappings!?!
Convoluted it may sound, but every player brings to the piece a juicy nugget of often hilarious human quirkiness and physical frailty, emotional usuriousness or fragility.
Irfan Shamji as Joseph, is central to the story’s progression – although the narrative tends to twist in on itself for further examination rather than moving towards any sort of standard conclusion. Juliet Cowan as his manipulative, sensitivity-vacuum Gloria (the book publisher who could be evil, if she weren’t so pathetically needy), keeps her character just the right side of pastiche to deliver some of the strongest, darkest and funniest moments in the play.
Bijan Sheibani directs the remainder of the excellent troupe with a naturalistic flow which enables everyone to shine and demonstrate their stagecraft.