John Patrick Shanley is a prolific and gifted playwright who’s had a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony for his hugely successful play Doubt. He also wrote its screenplay and directed the film which was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay. He’s won many other awards and his plays and films reflect the wide range of his interest in the human condition and his ability to examine it with the skill and dexterity of a poet and a reporter. All of that has been lovingly poured into this, his newest effort, an admittedly autobiographical fiction called Prodigal Son, which the Manhattan Theatre Club has presented with equal skill, dexterity, and love.
It is the story of a grown man, looking back on three of his formative years, when he was 15-17, a student at the Thomas More Preparatory School in New Hampshire. The years covered would be 1965-1968. The author tells us in a program note that, “there were 55 boys sequestered on a mountaintop for the purpose of education.” It’s taken him many years to get to this particular work, but his memory is keen and the play unfolds in a well crafted number of scenes that deal with him when he was “rather violent, a bit delusional, hungry.. and wild eyed.” “Jim Quinn”, as he calls himself in the play, is an irritating, opinionated, and totally lovable young man, but he’s like a bucking bronco who wants training, yet resists all efforts to train him.
He’s under the influence of two of his professors; the by-the-numbers headmaster Carl Schmitt, who is determined to prevail, and the far more docile Alan Hoffman who in this three year odyssey works his way through the defenses the young man puts in his way.
These three central characters are complex, and Mr. Shanley has directed his play with a firm but loving hand. He’s aided by the flexible bucolic set designed by Santo Loquasto, who has captured the physical beauty of the school and its bucolic setting.
The boy is played with virtuoso style by Timothée Chalamet, a young actor whose past work has been primarily in film. You would never know it watching his performance here, for he is fearless in reaching for and finding the many telltale quirks that mark his every waking moment. He can react to a searing remark with a sudden sharp turn of his head, he can create lightning and thunder, all the while remembering his character is from the streets of the Bronx, uncomfortably trying to navigate the strange turf of this elegant upper class prep school. He has a roommate, a well adjusted boy who knows he doesn’t have too much to offer, a boy who tries to help Jim deal with reality because he keenly feels his pain.
Jim is by no means insane, and the psychiatric examination he is forced to endure shows him to be brighter than his examiner, using the wit and insight that might well suit a brilliant trial attorney. As played by young Chalamet and the very valuable Robert Sean Leonard as one mentor, and by Chris McGarry as the other, the trio form the core of this very absorbing character driven play by major playwright John Shanley.
The small supporting cast is excellent as well. David Potters as the Woody Allenish roommate is honest, funny, and sad. The headmaster’s wife is played by Annika Boran, and Professor Schmitt is lucky to have her. She gives her husband perspective and makes of him a headmaster who may in time become a better shaper of young minds. Ms. Boran trained at RADA, and clearly paid attention.
Because the play shows growth and resolution for Jim Quinn, and because it’s autobiographical, one takes double pleasure from it, knowing that Quinn is going to be all right, and that his playwright alter ego emerged from bad beginnings to make something meaningful of his life.
Running Time: 95 minutes, with no intermission.
Prodigal Son plays through March 27, 2016 at The Manhattan Theatre Club- performing at MTC Stage I at City Center – 131 West 55th Street (between 6th & 7th Avenues), in New York City. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, buy them at the box office, or purchase them online.