February 20, 2016

This "Prodigal Son" Remains Lost

Like the playwright John Patrick Shanley, I was a kid from a working-class family who got a scholarship to a New England prep school and it changed my life in all kinds of ways. So I was really looking forward to Prodigal Son, the new play inspired by Shanley's school days that opened at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I last week. And maybe my high expectations explain why I was so disappointed by the play. Although, alas, that's not the only reason.

The experience of moving from one world into another, particularly at such a sensitive age, can be difficult and Shanley is apparently still wrestling with it. In an author's note in the program, he says that he hasn't changed the name of the school or those of the teachers who were important to him in his time there. "I wish you could have been there," he writes. "I wish more generally that you could have shared my whole life with me, so we could discuss and compare."

Shanley's alter ego, to whom he's given the name Jim Quinn, is smart but defensive: quick to challenge his instructors and even quicker to confront classmates who make fun of his Bronx accent. He's also somewhat self-destructive, doing things—drinking, stealing from his classmates—that, if discovered, will get him thrown out of the place.

Timothée Chalamet, a young actor who went to New York's High School for Performing Arts and has appeared in several movies and on TV's "Homeland," is pitch perfect as Jim, equal parts cocky, vulnerable and desperate to be somebody of true importance. The rest of the cast (Chris McGarry as the headmaster, Annika Broas as his wife, Robert Sean Leonard as a supportive English teacher and David Potters as Jim's nerdy roommate) is first-rate too.

And yet the play, at least as directed by Shanley himself, struck me as bloodless. Maybe that's because Shanley knows how it all unfolded and didn't feel the need to spell it out for the rest of us. Or perhaps he figured details aren't necessary cause the audience knows how it all turned out since we're sitting there at the outcome. 

Instead, he seems as though he's still trying to prove that he fits into that world. He name checks poets (T.S. Eliot) and philosophers (Heraclitus)  and theologians (the school's name saint). And he devotes far too much of the play to having everyone marvel over and over again how brilliant Jim (i.e., the young Shanley) is. 

The subtle nuances he achieved in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Doubt are absent here. Prodigal Son is a heady play but it rarely gets to the heart of what the experience meant for a kid with so few other options.

There are instances when that could have happened. One of Jim's mentors reveals a romantic interest in the boy but the moment is rushed by, as though Shanley is uncomfortable with the memory. And like all the other plot points that make this more than just a paean to his younger self, the revelation happens in the final 10 minutes of the play. That means 85 minutes of throat-clearing.

There's no quarreling with the work of the creative team. The set by Santo Loquasto is so right-on that I felt the frosty air of a New England winter just by looking at its bare birch trees. Natasha Katz's lighting gracefully charts the passage of time. And the moody interstitial music by Paul Simon is lovely, even though Shanley allows it to play on far longer than the scene changes require.

But sets, lighting and music aren't the primary reasons we go to see a play. And this play doesn't make a strong enough argument for our being there.

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