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Prodigal Son

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The glow of memory is at once crystalline and cloudy in Prodigal Son, John Patrick Shanley's curiously cursory new play at City Center for Manhattan Theatre Club. In it, the witty and incisive playwright who's best known for stage works like Doubt and Danny and the Deep Blue Sea and films like Joe Versus the Volcano and Moonstruck takes on one of the most uncertain subjects of his career to date: himself. And, in doing so, he discovers... Well, not much, as it turns out.

Okay, that might not be exactly fair. In containing a dual portrait of two influential teachers of his life, Prodigal Son is not without merit. And it describes, if in oblique terms, the perils facing this artist as a young man. Specifically, it should be noted, at the Catholic Thomas More Preparatory School in New Hampshire, where the Shanley avatar, here called Jim Quinn and played by Timothée Chalamet (of Showtime's Homeland), spends the last two years of his troubled high school tenure before graduating, figuratively and literally, to better things.

But it's tough to escape the fact that, for all his high talk, Jim is not particularly interesting at the head of his own story. He's "troubled" (quotation marks and all), at odds with parents and an educational system that have never let him be the young man or the writer he's always dreamed of being. So he gravitates toward Alan Hoffman (Robert Sean Leonard), the first instructor who's ever looked beyond his flailing, failing exterior and seen greater potential inside. And he tilts, quite nastily, against the administration of the school's headmaster, Carl Schmitt (Chris McGarry), who doesn't see in him the golden promise that Alan does.

Is is perhaps a spoiler to say that the attitudes and bonds that form between these men will be tested and, in many ways, flipped before evening's end, though it doesn't remotely feel like revealing anything unnecessarily. After all, is that not the way of tales like this: the ignorant genius whose greatest struggle is learning exactly what he has to learn? How many other ways are there for him to unveil his own limitations than by doing so with the men who represent their alpha and omega? The other characters who appear, Jim's roommate Austin (David Potters, overplaying nerdiness) and Carl's wife Louise (Annika Boras), are important only for how they reflect Jim's development, not through their contributions to it.

So formulaic is Shanley's writing (and, by extension, his direction), in fact, that there's nothing on hand to detract from it. Even the dream-kissed countryside sets (by Santo Loquasto), the rumpled-60s-finery costumes (Jennifer von Mayrhauser), pensive lighting (Natasha Katz), and moody original music (Paul Simon) seem reluctant. This is an episodic flashback piece that peers into certain key incidents (the first night alone, Jim's being accused of a crime he definitely committed, later Jim's being accused of one he maybe didn't, the moments he learned exactly who his hero and nemesis really were), but cares little for connecting them.

You don't need to see every second of Jim's development, of course (Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, for example, proved that eliding various occurrences within this sort of structure can be powerful), but it's a bigger problem that Shanley doesn't provide the crucial character points that might let us understand who he... sorry, who Jim... is at his core. There's something frustrating in watching a year pass by in a blink but no discernible change or growth appear in those who ostensibly endured much during that time. What are we supposed to take away from this?

Nothing, I'd venture to guess. One suspects that these events, as related from Jim as a 64-year-old ("played" once again by Chalamet, with no change of makeup, clothing, or even voice) at the play's beginning and end, are to be seen in insolation from the perspective of the man who didn't realize their importance at the time. It's his flaw that he sees the bookends of time but not what falls in between, and is thus unable to stop it from unfolding in ways he might prefer they didn't, and that does, indeed, tell us something (not entirely flattering) about the man behind it.

Unfortunately, it doesn't make for riveting drama. Jim has one spectacular speech as the action approaches its climax, in which he outlines Alan's piercing impact on his life, but even as I was moved to the verge of tears by his searing explication, I was baffled as to how I could have unraveled it myself from the 80 minutes of setup that preceded it. And when the turnabouts finally happened among the three leads, coalescing in a decade-twisting denouement of unexpectedly brutal force, the payoff felt both natural and arbitrary: the concretely right thing that was happening for no concrete reason.

A different director may have pushed Shanley the writer to better connect the dots. Or less time spent on writing might have forced Shanley the director to energize the proceedings and cast more carefully. Only McGarry, representing a fine blend of gruff and affectionate, is ideal for his part, though Boras brings a sympathetic sheen to Louise that would mean more if the character were meatier. Chalamet holds his anger too close to the surface, and draws upon it more readily than the other emotions that ought to be writhing inside Jim. And Leonard's typical enigmatic bookishness works against him here, obscuring too many nuances of a man who's too important to Jim to remain a cipher throughout.

Ultimately, Jim and Shanley suffer similarly—they're not able to convince us that their joint past is a puzzle we are, or should be, desperate to solve. We come to know, and even love, the men behind the man more than we do the man himself. There's nothing wrong with that, but, like its central figure, Prodigal Son is forever striving to be more and having to settle for less due to circumstances—and too-diminished expectations—beyond the sphere of its control.


Prodigal Son
Through March 20
New York City Center – Stage I, 131 West 55th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.nycitycenter.org


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