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Building Character: Santino Fontana The actor's brain injury guides his performance in "Sons of the Prophet"

By JANICE C. SIMPSON


Welcome to Building Character, TDF STAGES' ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles
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Job has nothing on Joseph Douaihy, the central character in Stephen Karam's Sons of the Prophet, now playing at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre. 

Joseph's widowed father has just died. His teenage brother is obsessed with sex and religion. Joseph himself has an undiagnosed ailment, and in order to get health insurance, he takes a job as a wacky rich woman's assistant.

Joseph is played by the versatile young actor Santino Fontana (pictured above, on the left), whose own recent misfortunes have helped him identify with the character. Fontana was the older brother in David Cromer's 2009 revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs, which closed after just nine performances. (A companion production of Broadway Bound never even opened.) Three months later, a concussion he suffered during a stage fight forced him to withdraw during the previews for a revival of A View From the Bridge

The injury kept Fontana grounded in a darkened room for almost a month. "I couldn't watch TV.  I couldn't use my computer. I would get migraines," he recalls. "It was bad, really bad. And it was really scary because with a brain injury like that, they can't really tell what's going to happen." 

The invitation to do a reading of Sons of the Prophet came near the end of his recuperation. Since reading still gave him headaches, Fontana asked a friend to look at the script and summarize it for him. It sounded promising and it proved cathartic.

"It was one of the first jobs I did after I got hurt," he recalls.  "At the end of  the play, he finally comes to terms with what's happened to him---I don't want to give away too much---but it's been a bad year for him basically, and that was exactly my experience at the time."
 
The play moved to a full production at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston earlier this year, but Fontana was unable to go with it because the Roundabout asked him to stay on as Algemon in its acclaimed production of The Importance of Being Earnest, which had just extended its run.

Now the Roundabout has given him another shot at playing Joseph, but that has brought the challenge of catching up with the rest of the cast. "Initially, I was a little nervous," Fontana confesses.  "It was like, 'Oh no, am I not going to find what they found? Or do they want me to be doing what they did in Boston and I don't know what they did in Boston?'" 

To prepare, Fontana observed people he knew who shared Joseph's introverted qualities. He borrowed specific characteristics from one friend. "I took some things he does with his arms, some things he did with his hips," he says. "I listened to him talk and there were inflections I took."

During rehearsals, Fontana and director Peter DuBois develop a shorthand reference for the character's temperament by measuring him against The Glass Menagerie's Tom and Laura.  "These are both fairly introverted people. However, Laura is further along the spectrum and Tom can take care of himself more easily," Fontana explains.  "So we'd do a run through and Peter would be like, 'It was too much like Laura."

And there were other considerations. Fontana says, "It's not like we're doing Long Day's Journey, and I think that's what's great about this play. It really captures the humanity of crisis but the humor of it too."

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Janice C. Simpson writes the blog Broadway and Me

Photo by Joan Marcus