Playwright Stephen Karam :: news inspires irreverent dramedy
Two gay men - brothers - are central to Sons of the Prophet, a new play from Stephen Karam, himself a gay man.
Don’t expect Gay 101 from this accomplished, young playwright, however.
"The idea of a gay man on stage no longer fits one mold," Karam, who just turned 31, told EDGE in a recent phone conversation on the eve of the play’s opening, April 1. (Press night is April 13).
The Huntington Theatre Company is presenting Karam’s play through May 1 at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center of the Arts. Directed by Peter DuBois, the world premiere features Kelsey Kurz (the recent The Merchant of Venice on Broadway) and Tony Award winner Joanna Gleason (Into the Woods).
Inspired by news story
Karam is hot off the enormous success of Speech and Debate, the play about three misfit teens who uncover a sex scandal at their high school (staged a year ago in Boston by the Lyric Stage Company). Another of his plays, columbinus, inspired by the school shootings in Columbine, will also be seen at the Calderwood Pavilion on April 13 - 15. The production was to be seen at Lexington High School earlier this year under the direction of 17-year old Emma Feinberg, but was canceled by the school’s principal for being inappropriate. When the Huntington learned of that Feinberg was looking for another theater to sponsor her production, the Huntington came to her rescue.
As with columbinus, Sons of the Prophet was inspired by a news story. As a prank, high school football players put a deer decoy in the middle of a dark rural road. A teenage driver swerving to avoid it, crashed his car. The accident left the driver disabled and his passenger severely brain damaged. In an odd bit of justice from the bench, the judge sentenced the football players to sixty days in juvenile detention, but suspended their sentences so they could finish the season. The judge said before giving the sentence, "I shouldn’t even be doing this."
Karam has said that he obsesses over news stories such as this one.
Karan acknowledges that being a gay man was subconsciously at least a help in developing his central characters, the Lebanese-American Charles and Joseph Douaihy, as gay men who are comfortable in their sexuality. Also the fact that he’s half-Lebanese and grew up in a town (Scranton, PA) that’s much like the one (Nazareth, PA) where his irreverent comedic drama takes place helped his characterizations. (Nazareth, PA is named for the Biblical town where allegedly Jesus spent part of his youth).
In Sons of the Prophet, a prank (similar to the real one describe above) goes wrong and leads to the death of the brothers’ father. Woes mount upon woes. Their uncle is losing it. Joseph, the older at 29, is battling a mysterious ailment. Gloria, his eccentric boss, is pressuring him to write a memoir about his Maronite Catholic family’s tenuous connection to the popular Boston poet, Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet (a book comprised of 26 poetical essays mostly on the topic of spiritual love). And an ambitious and sexy reporter descends on the family looking for a story. This is all fodder for Karam’s brutally funny comedy.
"Comedy comes out of character," says Karam, "it comes from situations."
His own sense of humor, he says, has functioned "as a coat of armor to get through life sometimes."
He adds that "I rarely go through a day without a good laugh. Real life to me seems pretty funny."
Karam’s first splash as a dramatist, Speech & Debate, was produced Off Broadway by Roundabout Theatre Company as the inaugural production of Roundabout Underground (after which it’s received over 100 productions across the U.S. and Canada). The Roundabout project fosters the work of emerging theater artists by staging new plays in its Black Box Theatre.
Places to do plays such as the Roundabout initiative are vital to young playwrights. So too are encouraging teachers in college level drama courses (Karam earned his B.A. from Brown University where his Girl on Girl got a workshop production from the Brown/Trinity Playhouse), and financial awards, such as a fellowship stay at the MacDowell Colony enjoyed by Karam. Such opportunities have changed the landscape for tyro playwrights.
"It’s critical that young playwrights get these opportunities as it’s more and more expensive to do plays," says Karam.
"Theaters are figuring out ways of not shutting out new playwrights by building new, smaller theaters, which is wonderful as long as they graduate those playwrights into their larger spaces," he said.
Having the DuBois helmed Sons of the Prophet at the Calderwell Pavilion and then go on to Off Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre in the fall is "a big step in that direction." The Huntington production is produced in association with the Roundabout, which commissioned the play from Karam after premiering his smash hit Speech & Debate in October 2007.
Sons of the Prophet plays Tuesdays through Sundays at the Calderwood Pavilion in the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street in Boston’s South End through May 1. For more info you can go on-line to www.huntingtontheatre.org.