Meet James Quinn. Skinny and precocious, James is a poor kid from the Bronx with an enthusiasm for poetry and obscure religions. He’s a burgeoning kleptomaniac, a problem drinker, and quick on the draw when it comes to beating up freshmen. He’s also an alter ego for a young John Patrick Shanley, whose coming-of-age drama, Prodigal Son, takes a poignant look at the playwright’s own difficult youth. Heartfelt and frequently well observed, the play — now at Manhattan Theatre Club in a production directed by the author — teeters between restraint and emotional overload, eventually (and unnecessarily) succumbing to the latter.
It’s 1965, and James (Timothée Chalamet) is fifteen and flirting with disaster. He flunked out of his last school — it was boring — but his mother has finagled him a scholarship to a small all-boys school in New Hampshire run by the extremely serious headmaster Carl Schmitt (Chris McGarry). If Thomas More Preparatory School admits James, he’d better live up to his potential — a project, you can imagine, that is unlikely to go well in a drama titled Prodigal Son. At Thomas More, James reads Plato and Dostoyevsky, learns chess, and finds teachers who believe in him: the troubled idealist Alan Hoffman (Robert Sean Leonard) and Schmitt’s wife, Louise (Annika Boras), who tutors him in honors English.
But trouble clings to James like static to a cheap school uniform. He steals, drinks, and lies — and then lies about stealing, drinking, and lying — and he fights with anyone who’ll let him. As he grapples with T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, he also grapples with a question he finds in Heraclitus: Is character destiny? Does James’s working-class background — brother in Vietnam, telephone-operator mother — mean he can’t become a poet? Does it doom him to self-sabotage and scuttle his chances at graduation and a college degree?
Shanley treats his teenage avatar with affection (possibly too much affection) but also with humor and sensitivity. And indeed Prodigal Son is at its best when following its central personage, whom Chalamet endows with an endearingly manic energy. In James’s long conversations with Hoffman, Louise, and his roommate Austin (David Potters) we get a thoughtful, often entertaining meditation on the troubled teenage mind. Santo Loquasto’s set features a miniature redbrick school building upstage center, its windows occasionally illuminated with remembered light — gently reminding us that everything we’re seeing is filtered through memory’s haze.
But memory serves other characters less well than James. Louise is tidily angelic; there are hints she might have an existence outside of the men around her (“Could you not quote Margaret Sanger at the dinner table?” her husband remarks), but we never see that other life. More disturbingly, Hoffman and Schmitt are given additional layers via that most threadbare of theatrical strategies, the buried secret that erupts when it’s least convenient, spilling shame and trauma everywhere. As James’s potential graduation nears — and James can’t stop acting out, jeopardizing his diploma — the instructors’ battle over him grows surreal, becoming a kind of stagy séance in which Shanley resurrects the dead so as to bare their long-ago souls.
Late in the play, James learns that Hoffman, his beloved teacher, has a complicated, disturbing past. “Be more specific,” James demands; he wants the dirty details. “No,” says Hoffman, claiming he’s not going to spill. If only he (and Shanley) had meant it.
Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley
New York City Center
131 West 55th Street