How it’s New York: John Patrick Shanley is from The Bronx.
How it’s Irish: And he’s Irish-American and writes often about characters who are Irish-American.
John Patrick Shanley’s somewhat autobiographical play at Manhattan Theatre Club, “The Prodigal Son” vividly recalls the strange and terrible land that is youth.
“Do you remember 15?”
asks the main character, Jim Quinn (Timothée Chalamet), as the play opens. In the scenic background is a large house at a distance, the Thomas More School, with a light on, and birch trees around it. The evocative set design by Santo Loquasto, moody lighting design by Natasha Katz, and hovering music by Paul Simon set the tone early.
Quinn, an articulate, pugnacious kid from The Bronx, is our guide through his two “years in Hell.” He receives a surprising full scholarship to a Roman Catholic prep school in New Hampshire. That’s the essence of the play really: kid from Bronx finds his footing. It’s more than enough; it’s riveting. It’s a powerful dramatization of the way memory of youth works– it’s always there, in the distance, the house in the background, the voices we hear.
That’s not to say there isn’t any plot. There is, of course. We see Quinn facing his demons: stealing records, but not being expelled because Louise, the kindly wife of the headmaster (Annika Boras) helps him out. We see his obsession with Nazis and ethics, expressed in poetry; we see his internal fire make an impression on his nerdy roommate (David Potters, who seems a total stereotype of the Jewish kid, until I remembered we’re at a Catholic school).
And we see how English teacher Alan Hoffman (Tony Award-winner Robert Sean Leonard) tries to connect with him.
Shanley also directs, and has done a wonderful job of breathing life into what could be merely a wistful memory play that looks back a little angrily. Though it may not always be clear what the play is building to, there’s never a question that it’s building to something.
One major showdown towards the end is a bit unconvincing Place SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER HOVER TO SEE
— turns out Hoffman is a little too invested in some of his students, and makes an awkward pass at Quinn late in the play. This plot point is in fact set up with some dialogue about a student who left– and for all I know it’s also true. But it feels unnecessary in the world of this play.
The play is, as befits a Catholic mindset, a direct choice between good and evil, with headmaster Carl Schmitt (Chris McGarry) representing Good, though Good is Tough. Hoffman is easier to get along with. And maybe not Good.
Chalamet’s Quinn buzzes with curiosity and even brilliance.It’s a stunning performance.
Handsome in that coltish teenage way (Chalamet is 20), with button-down shirts that look too big on him, he’s intense and passionate, he also conveys such extreme vulnerability that you just want to hug him.
Some viewers may find this characterization, based on the author, to be indulgent; I didn’t. Quinn says things like,
“Who put that thought there?”
“I don’t know why I do things.”
It’s a teenage thought. It’s an adult thought.
He’s self-aware, but no more full of himself than any teenager. If things are intense, it’s because teens are intense– and because this school is, in a way, a last chance for him to break ou of a blue-collar world. He’ll always be tough– got into a fight with someone who “said bad stuff about President Kennedy” (and Kennedy’s picture is still in many an irish pub)– but he’ll get his points across with words instead of fists.
People like to say that there isn’t a class system in America, but it’s never been true. The play may take place in the ’60s, but it’s a coming-of-age story that still feels relevant.
It would be easy to make the characters mere types, but Shanley is too skillful for that, and there are depths to each character we meet. Boras’ compassion never tips over into sentimental. McGarry’s tightrope between liking the boy and maintaining discipline is perfectly portrayed. And it’s easy to see why a bright boy who reads poet Siegfried Sasson and Plato would be drawn to Robert Sean Leonard’s corduroy-wearing pacifist English teacher.
When the headmaster threatens to expel Quinn, he says that he’s not going to cry…
Somebody, Mr. Hoffman, finally saw me.
The showdown has a religious overtone. It’s compelling. It’s wonderful theater.
Is character destiny?
In “Doubt,” Shanley’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, there’s the subversive suggestion that children can learn and find good even from adults whose interest is unhealthy. Quinn retains some anger for the school– as a terrific last scene that involves people from different times talking at once.
That’s how memory works isn’t it? The voices are there at once in our heads. We answer with the wisdom of now. We answer in the tone of then.
And yet. Despite the anger.
Here is this play.
And the play is beautiful.
Remember 15? Everything mattered. It does still.