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BWW Review: Pain and Humor in SONS OF THE PROPHET at Theater J

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It's not easy to maintain a balance in dark comedy.

Going too dark dries up the laughter and becoming too wacky blots the underlying pain.

SONS OF THE PROPHET, Stephen Karam's play getting a regional premiere at Theater J, begins with the death of a man in a rural single car accident, trying to avoid a plastic deer decoy some prankster put in the middle of the road.

It focuses on the effect on a son, who had been training for the Olympics in Pennsylvania but has been sidelined by chronic pain. He takes a part-time job in publishing in order to snare health insurance, but when his boss learns he's the grandson of The Prophet author Kahlil Gibran, she gets excited about him writing his own family history.

Then there is the lingering issue of the freak accident - should the star football player who was dared to place the deer in the road be banned from future games, endangering his future? There are serious ramifications to what starts as something depicted as a wacky death. Plus a lot of things about a Lebanese family in the Pennsylvania valley pocked with town names like Nazareth, Bethlehem, Lebanon and Egypt.

Which is a lot to throw into a stew where flavors are already fighting one another.

It's a strong enough cast, led by Chris Dinolfo as the athletic young man trying to fend off his boss and a family legacy, Brigid Cleary as that flighty boss, Michael Willis as a gruff uncle and Tony Strowd Hamilton as a flighty high school brother. Sam Ludwig is a reporter and love interest who seems more suited to print than to broadcast (would such an random accident even warrant a local report or investigation?).

Getting most out of their roles, perhaps, are two assigned to multiple parts - Vanessa Bradchulis as a physician's assistant and particularly a school board member trying to control a meeting; and Cam Magee doing great work in smallest roles in a bus station, on the board, but particularly as a kindly ex-teacher in the physical therapy room. The two of them understand the deepest, perhaps, the depth needed to reflect humor and drama. (Cleary, by contrast, as the flighty boss, is way over the top at every moment).

It's mostly due to Gregg Henry's direction that whatever comic potential the work could have is marred by uneven rhythms, crosstalk or simple failure to land or clearly enunciate what wouldd have been punch lines. This could be the result of early performances and failure to adjust to audience reaction, such as it is. But on opening night, at least, something was amiss in delivering whatever it is the playwright was trying to say.

Set designer Luciana Stecconi and lighting designer Kyle Grant seem to have put a lot of thought into what they do. The scenes are divided into sections that are titled as if chapters from "The Prophet" - "On Work," "On Friendship" and so forth, delivered in the same distinctive typeface.

For a long spell, Grant flashes what is supposed to be the patron saint of suffering over the family home, though it has the effect of being a figure of shrouded death.

Stecconi's set has to accommodate a lot of places, from fancy publishing house to functional bus station to a school auditorium to the chaotic homestead, so it might seem a little brutalist for a Lebanese family home. But it's interesting enough to look at for a couple of hours.

Running time: One hour, 45 minutes.

SONS OF THE PROPHET runs through Dec. 20 at Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW. Tickets through 202-777-3210 or online.

Photo credit: Jaysen Wright, Brigid Cleary and Cam Magee; and Chris Dinolfo in SONS OF THE PROPHET at Theater J. Photo by Teresa Wood.


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