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 Timothée 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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Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center, Prodigal Son comes off as Shanley’s strained effort to work out in public his own adolescence as a Bronx kid with mediocre grades who was given a full scholarship to a Catholic boarding school in New Hampshire.
The playwright keeps so little distance from his actual experiences that, in a program note, Shanley tells us that this is “a true story for the most part” in which he hasn’t even changed most of the real-life names. (One exception is his own name.) If there’s something personally brave about what amounts to a public confession, there’s also something over-romanticized — and undigested — about the playwright’s depiction, half a century later, of himself as a self-destructive working class teenager at war with his own inner nature as a sensitive, poetically gifted hero.
Jim Quinn desires to be a hero just like the poets and philosophers he greedily reads. “The dead tell me everything,” he says, in contrast to “the stiffs I have for teachers.” There are many references to poets and philosophers in Prodigal Son (as there were in Dead Poets Society, the 1989 film by Oscar-winning screenwriter Thomas H. Schulman), some of which deepen the script, much of which is so cursory as to come off as little more than name-dropping.
Jim exhibits an ugly adolescent rebelliousness, including not just the normal questioning of authority, lying and drinking, but beating up classmates and stealing from them. There is no explanation for this behavior – Jim himself doesn’t understand it, and neither apparently does Shanley. Curiously, the playwright tells us very little about Jim’s background – we learn little more than that his mother works as a telephone operator, and that his brother is a soldier in Vietnam. It’s as if we are supposed to hear “the Bronx” and fill in how rough it would be for a sensitive boy. But the Bronx in 1965, the year Prodigal Son begins, was not the wasteland (despite repeated unsubtle references to T.S. Eliot’s poem in the play) that a large portion of it would become a decade later.
If Shanley as playwright does not do his best work in Prodigal Son, Shanley as director oversees an appealing production that does much to offset the flaws in the script. Paul Simon has written the pleasing incidental music. Santo Loquasto creates a set that well serves the play’s themes, the literal of everyday (a solid desk in a study, a blackboard in a classroom) competing with the abstract of memory (bare trees, a dreamy mini reproduction of the converted mansion that housed the Thomas More Preparatory School.) Lighting designer Natasha Katz, costume designer Jennifer Von Mayrhauser and sound designer Fitz Patton are expert as usual in evoking a time, a place and a mood.
But it’s the five-member cast that most draws us in—Chris McGarry as Mr. Schmidt, the headmaster whose decision to take a chance on “the most interesting mess we have this year” is sorely tested, and whose intriguing, if perhaps pat, reason for doing so is revealed only at play’s end; Annika Boras as the level-headed and independent-minded Mrs. Schmidt; David Potters as his eager and supportive and (mildly) abused roommate. Robert Sean Leonard is persuasively settled-in in the kind of genial role for which he’s become most familiar, thanks to his long-running stint as Dr. James Wilson in the TV series House M.D. (and despite a wide variety of widely praised performances in some dozen Broadway plays starting at age 17.)
All four of these characters seem to exist primarily to revolve around Jim Quinn, and the play is taken up with their discussions with him or about him.
Luckily, the actor who portrays Jim holds the center admirably.
Timothée Chalomet played a reckless rich kid in Homeland (Finn Walden, Dana’s boyfriend.) In Prodigal Son, he portrays a reckless and restless poor kid with impressive precision, from his excellent Bronx accent (bravo to dialect coach Charlotte Fleck) to the extensive repertoire of gestures and physical movement that wonderfully captures the agitation and contradictions of adolescence. At the risk of overstating, Chalomet’s performance strikes me as the sort of magnetic stage debut that marked young actors in the past as stars of the future – actors like John Garfield and Marlon Brando, and Robert Sean Leonard.
Prodigal Son is on stage at New York City Center (131 W 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues, New York, NY 10019 ) through March 27.
Tickets and details
Prodigal Son, written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, featuring Annika Boras, Timothée Chalamet, Robert Sean Leonard, Chris McGarry, David Potters. Sets by Santo Loquasto; costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser; lighting by Natasha Katz; sound by Fitz Patton; music by Paul Simon; dialect coach, Charlotte Fleck. Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.