Review: ‘Prodigal Son’ at Manhattan Theatre Club

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.

David Potters (Austin) and Timothee Chalamet (Jim Quinn). Photo by Joan Marcus.
David Potters (Austin) and Timothee Chalamet (Jim Quinn). Photo by Joan Marcus.

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.

Chris McGarry (Carl Schmitt) and Timothee Chalamet (Jim Quinn). Photo by Joan Marcus.
Chris McGarry (Carl Schmitt) and Timothee Chalamet (Jim Quinn). Photo by Joan Marcus.

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.

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Richard Seff
RICHARD SEFF has been working in theatre since he made his acting debut in support of Claude Rains in the prize winning DARKNESS AT NOON, and he agreed to tour the next season in support of Edward G. Robinson, which took him across the nation and back for nine months. When it was over and he was immediately offered another national tour with THE SHRIKE with Van Heflin, he decided to explore other areas, and he spent the next 22 years representing artists in the theatre as an agent, where he worked at Liebling-Wood, MCA, eventually a partnership of his own called Hesseltine-Bookman and Seff, where he discovered and developed young talents like Chita Rivera, John Kander, Fred Ebb, Ron Field, Linda Lavin, Nancy Dussault and many others. He ultimately sold his interest to ICM. When he completed his contractual obligation to that international agency, he returned to his first love, acting and writing for the theatre. In that phase of his long and varied life, he wrote a comedy (PARIS IS OUT!) which brightened the 1970 season on Broadway for 107 performances. He became a successful supporting player in film, tv and onstage, and ultimately wrote a book about his journey, SUPPORTING PLAYER: MY LIFE UPON THE WICKED STAGE, still popular with older theatre lovers and youngsters who may not yet know exactly where they will most sensibly and profitably fit into the world of show business. The book chronicles a life of joyous work working in a favored profession in many areas, including leading roles in the regional theatres in his work in Lanford Wilson's ANGELS FALL. His last stage role was in THE COUNTESS in which he played Mr. Ruskin for 9 months off Broadway. Five seasons ago Joel Markowitz suggested he join him at DCTheatreScene. His accurate and readable reviews of the New York Scene led, when the time was right, for his joining DCMetroTheaterArts to continue bringing news of the Big Apple's productions just to keep you posted. He is delighted to be able to join DCMTA and work with Joel and hopes that you like what he has to say.