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‘Prophet’ playwright returns home for inspiration

Playwright Stephen Karam (left) and Huntington Theatre Company artistic director Peter DuBois, who have teamed on the new play “Sons of the Prophet.’’ Playwright Stephen Karam (left) and Huntington Theatre Company artistic director Peter DuBois, who have teamed on the new play “Sons of the Prophet.’’ (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / April 1, 2011

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Stephen Karam didn’t set out to write a play about where he grew up, in an aging Pennsylvania city long past its boom, built on industries that deserted it decades ago.

Scranton, Pa., population 72,000 and falling, is a place whose young people are more likely to leave than to stay, and Karam left, too, going first to Brown University, then to New York City. But at 31, it makes a certain sense to him that his “Sons of the Prophet’’ is rooted in the corner of the world where he spent his first 18 years.

“The older I get, the more appreciative I am of where I came from,’’ he said the other morning in a cafe near the Boston Center for the Arts, where his play’s world-premiere production, directed by Huntington Theatre Company artistic director Peter DuBois, begins performances tonight.

“It’s probably why it took me this long to write about my hometown,’’ he said. “For a long time, you feel like it’s the least interesting thing in the world, and no one cares, and I don’t even care, and then you realize that it’s just inseparable from who you are. It just defines who you are, and will forever.’’

“Sons of the Prophet’’ is a dark comedy about two Lebanese-American brothers whose father dies following a car accident caused by a high school athlete. The circumstances surrounding the accident echo a real-life event in Ohio in 2006, when a juvenile court judge let a pair of varsity football players defer serving their time until after the end of the season. According to news reports, the judge prefaced his decision by saying, “I shouldn’t even be doing this.’’

The older sibling in the play, Joseph, is a 29-year-old former marathoner whose body is mysteriously breaking down. To get health insurance, he works for Gloria, a batty, formerly successful businesswoman now exiled from New York. Joseph’s brother, Charles, is 18 and still in high school. Both are gay, Charles more matter-of-factly than Joseph. Both are also somewhat at odds, culturally and attitudinally, with their septuagenarian uncle, Bill, who comes to live with them.

“For a long time, I was in denial that I was writing a play about a family,’’ said Karam, best known for “Speech & Debate,’’ his 2007 comedy about a trio of high school nerds. “That’s just not what I thought I was doing. It’s a little kitchen-sink for me.’’

In talking about “Sons of the Prophet,’’ Karam, who is Lebanese-American and gay, was palpably nervous that it would be misconstrued as autobiography. In purely practical terms, he said, his family is too big to fit into one play. His father, a retired high school principal, is one of 10 siblings, almost all of whom stayed in the Scranton area and had children there.

“Coming home for me isn’t, like, one family dinner,’’ Karam said. “It’s about am I gonna see 50 relatives or am I gonna see 85?’’

Karam and DuBois began working together on the play in 2009, developing it at New York Stage and Film in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and doing a reading at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York, where this production is due to open in the fall.

“It’s really exciting sort of building it here and figuring the play out with audiences in Boston,’’ DuBois said recently before rehearsal, sitting behind a table in the empty Wimberly Theatre at the BCA. “It feels very old-school, you know what I mean? The Boston tryout.’’

Tony Award winner Joanna Gleason, who plays Gloria, and Broadway veteran Yusef Bulos, who plays Bill, have been with the play since the beginning, DuBois said.

At the Huntington, Karam has been writing in the rehearsal room, making changes to the script every day.

“He’s a very, very collaborative writer. He’s completely unthreatened,’’ DuBois said. “I think sometimes when you’re working on a new play, the actor feels like they have to kind of sneak over to the director and say’’ — he dropped his voice to a barely audible whisper — “ ‘I’m kind of having a hard time saying this line.’ Whereas with Stephen, he’s so kind of open and collaborative that the actor can just say it in the room, and he doesn’t feel like his line is being judged.’’

“It’s not that what other writers are doing is bad,’’ the director explained. “With a new play, the writer is the most vulnerable person in the room, ’cause when everyone comes to see the play and they know it’s a new play, what they’re talking about is the play. You come see ‘Hamlet,’ and you’re talking about the actor playing Hamlet, or you’re talking about the production.’’

DuBois, who was raised in north-central Connecticut, said he initially fell for the play because of its characters.

“I love plays that take place in small towns and pockets of America,’’ he said. “I’ve lived most of my adult life in cities, and I’m drawn to urban environments, but I think in storytelling I really love going back to those places I grew up.’’

In order to tell the story of “Sons of the Prophet,’’ however, he needed to go with Karam to the place where the playwright grew up. (That they ended up making the road trip in a rented Camaro was an accident of timing: On the Sunday of Columbus Day weekend last fall, the muscle car was the only one Avis had left — not, perhaps, an ideal fit for customers in the drama demographic. DuBois laughed as he recalled the “menacing’’ headlights and the “angry sound’’ the vehicle made when it was locked or unlocked. “You hit this button, and the car went, ‘Don’t [mess] with me,’ ’’ he said. “You could feel, like, testosterone coming off of the car.’’)

They visited local diners; they went to a high school football game; they dropped by the bus station, where a scene in the play takes place.

“The bus station is smaller than that stage — it’s very small — and yet when they’re making the announcements, they go over a PA system. Which I just love,’’ DuBois said. “There’s just these moments of absurdity that you want to capture.’’

At the same time, he said, the play is not ridiculing small-town life.

“It’s not ‘The Office,’ which parodies the lives of people living in Scranton and working in an office,’’ he said. “It’s much more earthbound than that and much more real and very emotionally grounded.’’

Karam, after all, still has family in Scranton. His older sister is in Boston now, working for PricewaterhouseCoopers, and his younger brother is teaching in the Dominican Republic, but his parents and much of the extended family are in Pennsylvania. Karam goes back frequently, even though it means an arduous bus trip from New York. There are no passenger trains there anymore, only old tracks that are “almost like this beautiful circulatory system’’ connecting the cities and towns, Karam said.

Last month, he returned for more than a family visit. A group at the University of Scranton, where his mother teaches Spanish, was doing a production of “Speech & Debate.’’

Karam had been hoping his plays would get back to Scranton. Even when he was getting regional productions elsewhere around the country, “Pennsylvania seemed to be least enamored’’ with his work, he said. But he worried that “Speech & Debate,’’ which he summarized as “all about a sex scandal and homosexual teenagers,’’ was “slightly risque’’ for the place. He worried, too, about his work being judged by people who’d known him growing up.

“So I sort of went into it kind of like this,’’ he said, putting his hands nearly over his eyes.

He needn’t have been concerned. He ended up reconnecting with teachers he’d had and with his old speech and debate coach, and his family didn’t have to leave town to see something he’d written. It was a moving experience, and it made him proud.

“Sometimes,’’ Karam said, “you realize you don’t give people in your hometown enough credit.’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.

SONS OF THE PROPHET Presented by Huntington Theatre Company

At: Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, tonight through May 1. Tickets: 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org