Robert Sean Leonard was 20 years old when he portrayed one of the boarding school students inspired by teacher Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poets Society. In Prodigal Son, John Patrick Shanley’s autobiographical new play, Leonard now portrays an inspiring boarding school teacher and Timothee Chalomet, 20 years old, his student.
But Shanley reverses the formula of the familiar genre, focusing on one troubled, self-centered student – himself at 15 — and turning the inspiring teacher into an almost peripheral character. Near the end of the 90 minute play covering two years in the student’s life, the teacher even behaves very close to a villain, which feels abrupt and unearned.
This melodramatic development, from the author of such subtle dramas as Doubt (which won four Tonys and the Pulitzer), seems like a symptom of what is amiss in Shanley’s ultimately disappointing new script – but one that is partially redeemed by a well-done production, directed by Shanley himself, that features several spot-on and one extraordinarily exciting performance.
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