… man of letters …

Prodigal Son is a beautifully produced and inspiring play about a brawling, drinking, stealing Irish boy from the Bronx whose intelligence – and good looks — land him a scholarship to a Catholic prep school in New Hampshire.

The play is closely autobiographical, as Shanley tells us in a program note, giving it a special interest.  The success of this production, however, owes as much to charismatic Timothee Chalamet as Jim Quinn, the troubled high school kid who lands at classy Thomas More, as it does to the playwright.

Thomas More Preparatory School, deep in the birch woods, is presided over by its founder, Carl Schmitt, a thoughtful but strict headmaster with a rather ideologically rigid view of the fine young men the school should turn out.  There Jim excels in literature, comes close to failing chemistry, decides he doesn’t like T. S. Eliot, does like Walt Whitman, swigs liquor in his room and entices his nerdy roommate, to do the same, beats up the freshmen, and in a pinch steals.

He also flirts with heresy, proclaiming that the deaths of Socrates, Jesus Christ and (oh no!) Thomas More himself were basically suicides, ideas put forth as a demonstration of Jim’s precocious brilliance.  Since the view that the deaths of these cultural icons can be seen as “suicides” has scholarly currency, Jim’s proclaiming them could be examples of his tendency to steal – here, ideas — but I’m pretty sure that not what Shanley meant!

Headmaster Schmitt would throw Jim out on his ear any number of times but boy has two protectors.  Louise, the headmaster’s wife, working with Jim on The Wasteland, recognizes the strength of Jim’s mind and the quality of his poems.  His English teacher, Alan Hoffman, is responsible for Jim being admitted to Thomas More in the first place — as the headmaster sees it, Jim is one of Alan’s” projects.”

In a stunning moment of growth, this talented, troubled boy defines his goal:  “I want to be a man of letters.”

Still, tolerance for troublemakers has its limits. The tension between Jim’s talent and his wrong-doing grows until he is on the brink of what will be his vast loss:  Carl Schmitt may not allow him to graduate.   In his author’s note, the now immensely successful playwright Shanley says that his time at Thomas More was “the period during which my whole life was being decided,” and no less of an issue of redemption is at stake for Jim.

Kindness and second chances help but these only take you so far.  It’s an upsetting and disappointing confrontation with reality, and what Jim takes away from it, that puts him in throwing distance of redemption.   Actually, I wish this point had been given more emphasis.

The play is beautifully staged, with a set by Santo Loquasto that conveys not only the fortress-like conventionality but also the life enhancing possibilities of Thomas More.   Paul Simon’s original music evokes the mid-1960’s and another coming of age story that was playing at the movies when Jim – and John Patrick – were at Thomas More — The Graduate.  The play is dedicated to Mike Nichols, who directed The Graduate.

Annika Boras is touching as Louise Schmitt although as the well-bred and restrained wife of the headmaster she doesn’t need to draw on her extraordinary dramatic power, seen for instance in her Electra at Classic Stage (it’s hard to believe she also plays a tough-talking detective on Law and Order SVU).

David Potters is stern but reachable as Headmaster Schmitt.  In the critical denouement, Robert Sean Leonard as Alan, the English teacher, subtly unveils pertinent truths of his character.  David Potters is humorous and charming as Jim’s studious roommate –the nerd with the big eye glasses.   Austin is open to temptation but knows when to stop – unlike Jim.

But there’s no getting away from Timothee Chalamet as Jim, somewhere between Tony Perkins and Marlon Brando:   as he works his part, all eyes are on him.

Prodigal Son plays at Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center in midtown Manhattan through March 27th, 2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

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