Prodigal Son

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Photo: Joan Marcus Review
You could rightly argue that no one needs to see another play that is essentially a portrait of the artist as an angry young man. And then along comes John Patrick Shanley’s excellent new work “Prodigal Son,” now at Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center, to prove you wrong.

First off, you’d miss film and television actor Timothee Chalamet’s stunning breakout performance as the teenaged Jim Quinn, as believable a portrayal of confused adolescence as I’ve seen in years. And second, Quinn – as he’s been named here – is actually the young Shanley, who is now letting us into a little-known if monumentally important part of his life: the two years he spent at a Thomas More Prepartory School in New Hampshire, which forever shaped and changed him.

Jim, who is given a scholarship to Thomas More by rigid headmaster Carl Schmitt (a superb Chris McGarry), is a stranger in a strange land: a boy from a troubled home in the Bronx with a chip on the shoulder the size of Cleveland, a gift for writing, a penchant for violence, and a distinct fascination with philosophy and self-examination. While he’s just 15 when the play begins, many of the questions that plague Jim throughout his time at Thomas More probably still plague Shanley today. Indeed, they are familiar to theatergoers of any age: Is character destiny? What makes a hero? Am I good looking?

Schmitt, a religion professor with a tragic recent past, isn’t really that interested in Jim or his problems. Fortunately, his wife, Louise (an excellent if underused Annika Boras), an English professor, becomes one of his champions. More importantly (and eventually somewhat insidiously), so does another professor, Alan Hoffman (a nicely understated Robert Sean Leonard), who is part protector and part confessor, yet who never lets Jim forget the difference in their social classes and upbringing. Without them, it seems, there would be no “Moonstruck” (which earned Shanley an Oscar) or no “Doubt” (which won the Pulitzer Prize).

Interestingly, Shanley – who has also deftly directed the work –keeps his canvas small, focusing on Jim’s interactions with these three adults. There are a couple of brief scenes with Jim’s roommate Austin (a fine David Potters), but we never see any of the other students, and one can’t help but wish at times that the author had chosen to paint on a larger canvas.

Still, there’s no arguing with Shanley’s fame: who else could get Paul Simon to write incidental music? (It’s good, but not Grammy-worthy.) And there’s one takeaway from “Prodigal Son” which is good for all of us to remember: while you’re alive, you get to tell your own life any way you choose.
By Brian Scott Lipton

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Annika Boras, Timothée Chalamet, Robert Sean Leonard, Chris McGarry, David Potters

Open/Close Dates
Opening 1/19/2016
Closing 3/27/2016

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Theatre Info
Manhattan Theatre Club
131 West 55th Street
New York, NY 10019