The Mysteries of Nazareth, PA

“Speech and Debate” playwright takes on grown-up themes

Stephen Karam, now 31, burst on the New York theater scene in 2007 at the Roundabout’s Underground with the canny, pitch-perfect teen drama “Speech and Debate,” exploring gay youth, among other themes. It spread to 100 theaters and made Karam’s name.

His latest, “Sons of the Prophet” –– commissioned by the Roundabout, playing in its mainstage off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre, and directed by Peter DuBois –– opens with a big bang (a car crash), includes lots of great characters and genuinely funny lines, but packs in so many themes and symbols it ends up looking like a Pennsylvania roadmap.

We are indeed in “Northeastern and Central Pennsylvania,” where towns with biblical names such as Nazareth and Bethlehem abound. The patriarch of the Douaihys, a working class Lebanese-American family, has died of a heart attack shortly after swerving and crashing to avoid what turns out to be a fake deer wheeled onto the road in a prank by Vin (Jonathan Louis Dent), the local high school football star. The father’s grown gay sons (Chris Perfetti as younger and more flamboyant Charles and Santino Fontana as older and less stylish Joseph) take in their cantankerous old, ill Uncle Bill (Yusef Bulos).

Joseph, a 29-year-old amateur track star in his working class region, is coping with mysterious degenerative ailments; a deeply neurotic boss, Gloria (hilarious Joanna Gleason in all her glory), with whom he puts up to keep health benefits; and an Anderson Cooper-like closeted TV reporter, Timothy (a deft Charles Socarides), doing a story on the crash and the school’s determination to let Vin play out the season before facing the consequences of his misdeed.

Hovering over the proceedings is poet and artist Kahlil Gibran, author of “The Prophet” –– literally in terms of his words framing the scenes and literarily because agent Gloria wants Joseph to cash in and do a book about his family and their relationships to distant cousin Kahlil, with whom most Lebanese Americans apparently claim kinship.

Also “looking” down from the wall of the men’s home is St. Rafqa, a Lebanese nun (1832-1914) and, like the boys, a Maronite Catholic, who had one eye pop out and the other sink into her head, with both sockets hemorrhaging three times a week for the rest of her saintly life. Yikes!

Between the ecstasy of Gibran and the agony of Rafqa is the tragicomedy of this family, coping with pain and loss and neuroses. Karam seems to want this to be a quintessentially 21st century American story –– ripped from the headlines (at least from the local papers) and freighted with Serious References –– but he is best at telling really good jokes, the kind you hear on the better sitcoms, including some rippers about being gay in a small town. That’s not meant to be a putdown –– and Karam should go far with this talent –– but it often distracts from the play’s weightier pretensions. (The producers are billing “Sons” as “the funniest play about human suffering you’re likely to see.” That award will go to Nicky Silver’s “The Lyons” this season.)

Joseph (of Nazareth!) is the emotional center of “Sons of the Prophet” and young Broadway veteran Fontana (“A View from the Bridge,” “The Importance of Being Earnest”) gives a strong, nuanced performance in a play full of caricatures and types. His chaotic journey through various kinds of suffering is the story here, and for better or worse it is not neatly tied up at the end –– sort of like life.

But I was expecting more in a play, especially from this promising writer. Next time out he might think about heeding the words of another poet, Robert Browning. Less is more.

Essentials:

SONS OF THE PROPHET

Laura Pels Theatre

111 W. 46th St.

Tue.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m.

Wed., Sat. & Sun. at 2 pm.

Through Dec. 23

$71 – $81; roundabouttheatre.org

Or 212-719-1300

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