“He’s the most interesting mess we have this year.”
Prodigal Son, John Patrick Shanley (“Moonstruck”) autobiographical coming of age play for Manhattan Theater Club at City Center is sentimental, charming, truthful and heartbreaking. Part of that is due to the young actor Timothée Chalamet (“Homeland, “Interstellar”) who plays Jim Quin, the brash, intelligent questioning blue collar youth. We follow Jim as he receives a scholarship to attend the Thomas More Preparatory School, a private Roman Catholic institution in New Hampshire. He meets with the headmaster and owner Carl Schmitt (Chris McGarry) who due to his mother’s crying accepts the trouble Bronx teen. Once installed into the all boys school Chris confides to English teacher Alan Hoffman (Robert Sean Leonard) who has been known to champion trouble youths and Jim definitely fits the bill. He failed in public school, his I.Q. scores were just as low. He terrorizing his fellow students and priests while stealing was a pastime. Carl sees the potential in Jim who is an unusual thinker, brillant writer, whose love for poetry, the dow and his obsession with the Nazis is unique. Jim’s difficulty with getting along with others extends to his roommate, Austin (David Potters), but Austin so admires how deep Jim is the mix works. Unsure of himself and his future Jim would rather be Rafael Sabatini, Siegfried Sassoon or Elfego Baca. When caught in a theft, Jim enlists Carl’s wife, Louise (Annika Boras), to help him out. When Jim claims he is like the desert from the book “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám,”Louise sees him. When her husband loses hope, Louise explains “He’s using poetry like a ladder to climb out of some terrible place.”
Jim is so full of himself on the outside, but self sabotaging, fearing rejection, he rejects first. When confronted by Chris about being drunk, Jim lies then throws in his face; “how can I believe you when I’ve never seen your soul.” The fact is all the adults here hold secrets, that are devastating, which tax their souls.
The cast all shines with Mr. Chalamet giving such a layered, subtle performance, it is riveting. I expect to see him nominated for the Drama Desk, Outer Critics and the Lucille Lortel’s. I would not be surprised if he becomes a Theatre World Award recipient. Robert Sean Leonard’s performance is also subtle and chilling knowing he preys on the lost.
Santo Loquasto’s set of birch trees sliding unveiling the secrets within, to the miniature school showing what our imaginations once thought so mighty, is done to perfection.
Shanley’s play is so touching. You live his adolescents riddled with angst along with him word for word. There is a second play here, what happened in the Bronx? Or is that Doubt? How many people preyed on you in the name of God? Mr. Shanley, as a writer and a director you touched my soul for the first time this year.
If you like good theatre and good acting this is the play to see.
Prodigal Son: Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center – Stage I, 131 W. 55th St. Closes March 27th.