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Prodigal Son: Theater review by David Cote
Years ago, when I interviewed John Patrick Shanley about Doubt (then in rehearsal for Manhattan Theatre Club), I asked if he had any personal experience of Catholic priests molesting kids. The writer, who never met a question he couldn’t flip back at the asker, smiled slyly and said (as I recall): “Was I ever abused by a priest? No. But was there a teacher at a turning point in my life who wanted things from me I couldn’t give? Maybe.” Twelve years on, Shanley has written that play. Prodigal Son, his 11th collaboration with MTC, is a keen, passionate portrait of the author as a poetry-spouting romantic punk torn between literary dreams and his roots in the Bronx. He’s like his title’s biblical son, far from home and desperate for a father to forgive his wasteful ways.
Teenage Jim Quinn (Timothée Chalamet) tersely narrates the memory play, set in small-town New Hampshire at the Thomas More Preparatory School, which Shanley attended in the mid-’60s. Quinn is an intellectually gifted but erratic student, quick to quarrel over the heroism of Christ’s sacrifice with his religious instructor or pummel a roommate he thinks is mocking his “Noo Yawk” accent. Despite Jim’s propensity to sneak apricot brandy into the dorm or steal LP records from a fellow student, he comes under the protection of English teacher Alan Hoffman (Robert Sean Leonard), a corduroy-swathed humanist who marvels over this glorious mess of a boy.
Jim’s obvious antecedent is the prep-school cynic Holden Caulfield, but Shanley makes deliberate reversals: Caulfield happily ditches school for a week in the city, but Jim is terrified of being banished from idyllic New England. Caulfield is enraged by an obscenity he sees scrawled on a wall in his sister’s elementary school, but Jim defiantly chalks a large FUCK YOU on a blackboard. Beyond such literary echoes (Jim’s also a kind of Young Werther of Throgs Neck), Prodigal Son is pure, splendid Shanley: shaggily idealistic and always scratching a philosophical itch underneath jokes and banter.
He directs his own production with a tender hand, moving five actors about on Santo Loquasto’s spare, efficient set (interiors on platforms that slide on and off the deck). Like Doubt, the play is lean and cool-headed, but it contains one or two emotional explosions that cast the previous action in a new light. Leonard is his usual witty, affable self, and Chris McGarry and Annika Boras do fine, understated work as the headmaster and his wife.
But the night’s revelation is lanky Chalamet as Jim, nailing the Shanley accent and swagger. He gives one of the most impressive stage debuts I’ve seen in years. Cagey, bashful, cocky, then crumpled with shame, he makes you feel Jim’s growing pains—body and mind. The Prodigal Son spent it all, but this actor has wealth in reserve.—David Cote
Manhattan Theatre Club (Off Broadway). Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley. With Timothée Chalamet, Robert Sean Leonard, Chris McGarry, Annika Boras, David Potters. Running time: 1hr 35mins. No intermission.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote