New York City Theater
NY City Center Stage I
“He’s the most interesting mess we’ve had,” says the headmaster at Thomas More Preparatory School, a fancy Catholic enclave somewhere in New Hampshire. The “mess” he’s talking about is Jim Quinn, fictional avatar of John Patrick Shanley, the prize-winning author of “Doubt” and “Moonstruck.” In the Manhattan Theater Club production of “Prodigal Son,” an absorbing, occasionally tangential play about the self-absorbed Quinn, Shanley tells of his own life as a teenager, the years between 15 and 18 that sowed the seeds of his later career.
As played by the astounding Timothée Chalamet, Quinn is a young man beset by his own intelligence and self-imposed isolation. “I wish I was the master of my fate,” he says, knowingly misquoting William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus.” (The line is “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.”)
Brilliant as he is, Quinn is a handful, beating up other students, drinking, smoking, talking back. He’s a teenager in extremis, a creative, capricious student threatened with expulsion for his bad behavior and cavalier attitude towards studies.
Taken under his wing by English professor Alan Hoffman, Quinn cannot show gratitude even to him. ”Why should I change when I don’t know who I am?” he asks. “I like things I never thought of.”
His roommate, Carl, son of the school’s headmaster, is not only as inhibited as Quinn is outgoing, but comes from a different world. Carl is privileged, Quinn is a Bronx boy at More Prep on a scholarship. “I’m a beggar in the dark,” he says, with the merest taste of self-pity.
Shanley doesn’t force us to like his doppelganger; rather, he concentrates so much on his eccentricities that other plot lines muddy the waters. Take the headmaster’s wife, who tutors Quinn. Her liking him, we learn, has something to do with the death of the son she and her husband had.
Quinn is obviously a substitute for the dead son, an imposed twist that threatens to derail the play, as does a side issue with Hoffman that leads to an act of revenge. Neither track is developed, making them appear gratuitous.
Chalamet charms as he repels, capturing Quinn’s rebelliousness as well as his frustration and sensitivity. As he matures, so do his stance, his voice, his growing consciousness Robert Sean Leonard as Hoffman, David Potters as the headmaster and Chris McGarry as the roommate look and sound as if they’ve lived at More Prep all their lives. As the headmaster’s wife, Annika Boras struggles with a role that promises more than it delivers.
As directed by Shanley, the pace is sluggish and the waits between scenes are over-long. Santo Loquasto’s set, Natasha Katz’s lighting and Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes set the mood of a posh yet remote country estate, something out of Chekhov. Moody, too, is the music by Paul Simon (of Simon and Garfunkel).
As forerunner to his growth as a writer tormented by religion, sex and hypocrisy, Shanley has penned a sharp and affecting portrait of a mind that’s way ahead of the body in which it resides. “Prodigal Son” may be, at times, shallow and slight, but it is undeniably riveting.
--David A. Rosenberg
Feb. 28, 2016