Sons of the Prophet at Hampstead Theater review: This nauseating tragicomedy drags on

(Marc Brenner)

In Stephen Karam’s unhealthy American tragicomedy, a hard-hit Lebanese-American family in Nazareth, Pennsylvania is the vehicle for an exploration of different forms of pain, from physical agony to grief. It is Hampstead’s first opening since its Arts Council England grant was scrapped and illustrates the problems the theater is having in defining its mission to promote new writing.

Sons of the Prophet just isn’t very good. The characters are consciously eccentric, the situations forced, the supposed darkness of the mind exaggerated. Bijan Sheibani’s production cultivates an appealing, rambling naturalism and has a beautifully understated central performance by Irfan Shamji. But still, the 100-minute running time lags.

Shamji plays Joseph Douaihy, a high school runner crippled by chronic pain at age 29 and working for Gloria, a needy but callous book-packer (a form of outsourced publishing) because she pays for her health insurance. Joseph’s father dies in a car accident caused by a college football player’s prank, and his incontinent, emphysemic, and offensively old-fashioned Uncle Bill moves in.

The family is said to be descended from Franco-Lebanese knights and platitude writer Khalil Gibran: the chapter headings of Gibran’s silly bestseller The Prophet are projected above each new scene. But Joseph and his younger brother Charles (who was born with one ear and can identify any country by his shape) are both gay, so Uncle Bill considers the family line doomed.

Juliette Cowan & Raad Rawi in The Sons of the Prophet (Marc Brenner)

Juliet Cowan & Raad Rawi in Son of the Prophet (Marc Brenner)

The New Yorker Gloria, who tries above all to inflict unwanted secrets on Joseph’s suicide and his hysterectomy, smells a possible bestseller in the history of her family. A privileged white local reporter who reports on the car crash turns out to be gay and the footballer, who seeks to atone for his actions but also dodge the consequences, is of mixed and hot descent. Do you see what I mean by the fact that the room is artificial?

It’s not new either. Karam won a Tony Award for his fine 2015 drama The Humans, which moved to Hampstead with an intact Broadway cast in 2018. Sons of the Prophet is from 2011 and is a much more gritty and overbearing example of what the author calls “emotional”. autobiography”. It received a Pulitzer Prize nomination, but these are being passed around like Smarties at a children’s party, frankly. The play fits into a well-established stream of American playwriting that confuses sentimentality and empathy.

Sheibani’s production moves along nicely and is succinctly engineered by Samal Blak until it awkwardly breaks the fourth wall. But each character must match the pessimistic naturalness of Joseph de Shamji, and instead, they are mostly garish cartoons. On a deeper level, while the play may have novelty value to London audiences, it does not count as an exciting new work by any other measure.

Hampstead Theater artistic director Roxana Silbert announced her resignation when ACE’s £766,455 grant was withdrawn and warned the venue could no longer commit to exclusively promoting new writing. A new announcement Monday seemed to partly contradict that. Anyway, will we notice it?

After the confinement, Hampstead continued the program of raises planned for its 60e anniversary in 2019. Most of the new works he has produced since are disappointing and lack dramaturgical input.

In the 66 of this yeare Evening Standard Theater Awards Hampstead secured a nomination – for established director Katie Mitchell – and saw its reputation as a hotbed for exciting work completely stolen by the Bush Theater and the Young Vic. It is not enough that the parts are “new”. They must also be good.

Hampstead Theatre, until January 14; hampsteadtheatre.com

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