WBUR’s critic-at-large reviews two Boston plays running through May 1:
‘Sons of the Prophet’
“Speech and Debate,” about three high school misfits, introduced American theatergoers to the excellent young playwright Stephen Karam, so it’s quite a coup for the Huntington Theatre Company to be producing the world premiere of his new play, “Sons of the Prophet,” at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Once again, Karam demonstrates his finely honed skills of characterization, timing and injecting humor into serious issues. And at 31, he’s more adept at capturing youth culture in a way that we don’t see in the work of more established playwrights.
“Sons of the Prophet” deals with a family in which two Lebanese-American young men have just lost their father after a school athlete played a prank by putting a phony deer in the middle of the road. They’re trying to be sensitive to everybody concerned while their uncle Bill is filled with rage at what’s happened (even though Yusef Bulos is one of the most engaging people onstage).
Karam is obviously having fun with one generation being oblivious to 21st-century concerns and another walking on eggshells, which is emblematic of Karam’s comedy in general. Here he’s drawing on his formative days in Scranton, but these Pennsylvanians aren’t used for the kind of comic hazing that we enjoy in “The Office.” These characters, like those in “Speech and Debate,” all feel like real people.
And he couldn’t ask for a better production, with Huntington boss Peter DuBois directing the excellent ensemble cast that includes well-known national theater actors like Joanna Gleason, as well as one of our favorite local actresses, Dee Nelson. The only criticism is that the last scene aims at a kind of transcendence that the play itself doesn’t really earn. It’s a little too light for such a heavy ending.
Karam is no stranger to heavy concerns. He’s the co-author of “Columbinus,” which was in the news locally when Lexington High banned a production of that play about the Columbine killings. The principal was quoted as saying the play showed a world that was “unredeemingly hopeless and out of control,” a complete misreading of a play that tried to honestly come to terms with forces in the world that lead to such violence. Three cheers to the Huntington to give students like the talented young director Emma Feinberg a chance to put “Columbinus” on at the Calderwood.
‘Walking The Volcano’
The Huntington isn’t the only theater that’s been a friend to contemporary playwrights, both nationally and locally. Boston Playwrights’ Theatre is currently staging “Walking the Volcano” by Jon Lipsky, who passed away last month.
“Walking the Volcano” is a very smart stitching together of eight 10-minute plays he wrote for the Boston Theater Marathon (which is coming up next month, also at Boston Playwrights’ Theater). Four actors play a variety of lovers, or in one case a father and daughter, who are debating whether to be stuck in the middle or live life in the fast lane. The play’s title refers to living along the edge, literally walking along a narrow ridge where one has to balance ecstasy versus security.
The production is a great tribute to Lipsky, who was an old editor of mine and also gave me a painful lesson or two at the poker table before I became a theater critic. As the older couple, Paula Langton and Gabriel Kuttner are particularly moving, maybe because their life choices mirror those of a geezer like me a little closer. And the last playlet, with a woman dying of cancer, hits really close to home because of the playwright’s death.
Lipsky would have been proud of the support that both the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and the Huntington Theatre Company continue to give to his craft.