'Prodigal Son': Theater Review

Prodigal Son - H 2016
Courtesy of Joan Marcus
A skewed portrait of the artist as a young man.

In John Patrick Shanley's new drama, Timothee Chalamet plays a semi-fictionalized version of the playwright as a volatile youth, with Robert Sean Leonard as the English teacher who takes the boy under his wing.

Complex moral questions relating to inappropriate sexual conduct were at the center of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer- and Tony-winning 2004 drama, Doubt, and also its flawed but compelling companion piece the following year, Defiance. Late in his unsatisfying new work, Prodigal Son, the playwright touches on similar ground with far less trenchancy. Staging his own wordy text, Shanley delivers a beautifully acted production, with Timothee Chalamet supplying forceful presence as the writer's teenage stand-in and with elegiac original music by Paul Simon, no less. But for a work that announces itself as highly personal, this is an opaque portrait revealing little beyond the author's romanticized self-image as an embattled hero.

Shanley is a good enough writer to get away with that more than most — less skilled playwrights might merely be left holding an embarrassing vanity piece. However, for a story clearly rooted in his formative experience — nostalgic mid-60s writer looks back on mid-teens rebel, hungry for knowledge and struggling to define himself — there's a curious lack of perspective. The play doesn't dig nearly as deeply as it purports to. It also suffers from an overload of scholarly name-checking (poets, theologians, philosophers) and heavy-handed symbolism. It doesn't require multiple T.S. Eliot references to figure out that while the protagonist is squinting toward his future, he sees only a wasteland.

Jim Quinn (Chalamet) is 15 when he's accepted in 1965 into Thomas More, a private Catholic prep school in New Hampshire. His agile mind prompts the headmaster, Carl Schmitt (Chris McGarry), to overlook the boy's unexceptional grades and grant him a scholarship, but almost from day one, the teacher questions his decision. Schmitt asks the head of the English department, Alan Hoffman (Robert Sean Leonard), to keep an eye on Jim: "He's the most interesting mess we have this year."

Chalamet plays the conflicted sides of Jim with raw conviction. He conveys the sharp, endlessly questioning mind and twitchy physicality of a tough kid who has come up in a brawling, blue-collar milieu and now feels awkward and defensive in an environment where self-discipline is considered the key to maturity. While failing some subjects, he aces his English classes, impressing both Alan and the headmaster's kind wife, Louise (Annika Boras), with his writing skills. But he keeps sabotaging his chances of graduating by stealing, drinking, mouthing off and hitting kids who make fun of his Bronx accent.

Over the two-year period that the play covers, Shanley observes the character with more fondness than distance, and yet Jim remains emotionally remote. There's little poignancy in his loneliness. There's also a grating sense in the boy's behavior of being owed something by the adults failing to fulfill his needs. He quotes William Ernest Henley's Invictus — "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul" — and wishes he felt that way, inching toward the mentorship of Louise, and in particular, Alan, at the same time as he pulls away. When he exposes his feelings to his math-geek roommate, Austin (David Potters), who is Schmitt's nephew, Jim tends to disguise them in the heightened language of poetry.

The character's quest to find someone who can open a window to his future and then provide directions on how to get there is reasonably absorbing. But the play lacks drama, and Shanley's solution to that feels forced, even if it comes from personal history. Despite the quiet foreshadowing of sexual tension, the trusted adult who oversteps a boundary is set up as such a model of nurturing sensitivity that the transgression seems a sensationalist device. And it hastens a damning judgment that's out of character for the writer of Doubt and Defiance, works that explored the themes of transgression and judgment with more insightful complexity, not to mention compassion.

On the flip side, the emergence of the disapproving Schmitt as a decent man is played with integrity by McGarry, but it's achieved via another revelation that feels equally unsubtle — the disclosure of his own experience of sorrow and guilt. It also comes with a blunt metaphor about blindness. For a playwright who has always understood the seductive power of language, Shanley's writing in these pivotal late scenes is oddly clumsy. When he strays outside his favored duologue dynamic — and outside of conventional realism — to have all four secondary characters weighing in at once on Jim's fate, the resulting scene is a mess.

The writing doesn't match the elegance of the production, from Santo Loquasto's set, with its Chekhovian strands of denuded birch trees, through Natasha Katz's melancholy lighting, to the graceful punctuation of Simon's music. The chief reward is the acting, which keeps the play involving even as it grows more frustrating. Particularly noteworthy is Boras, superb in her handful of scenes as a supportive wife who's also very much her own person. Leonard is an actor of such economical but effective means that it's always a pleasure to have him back on a New York stage. And Chalamet, known primarily for Homeland and Interstellar, but not for theater work, is a real discovery.

Venue: NY City Center Stage I, New York
Cast: Annika Boras, Timothee Chalamet, Robert Sean Leonard, Chris McGarry, David Potters
Director-playwright: John Patrick Shanley
Set designer: Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: Jennifer von Mayrhauser
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Music: Paul Simon
Sound designer: Fitz Patton
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club