Saturday, March 5, 2016

PRODIGAL SON: In Autobiographical Play, Troubled Teen Seeks His Place in the World

Robert Sean Leonard and Timothée Chalet
Photo by Joan Marcus

In the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, a young actor by the name of Robert Sean Leonard played a troubled student at a prep boarding school in the hills of Vermont. In that movie, he was one of the boys under the wing of their nurturing English teacher (Robin Williams in an Oscar-nominated role). 

Now, 27 years later, Mr. Leonard has come full circle, taking on the role of Alan Hoffman, a nurturing English teacher at a prep boarding school (this one located in the hills of New Hampshire), who takes a troubled student (Timothée Chalamet) under his wing in John Patrick Shanley’s autobiographical play Prodigal Son, now at the Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center Stage I. 

The student (here called Jim Quinn, though he surely is a stand-in for the playwright) has been admitted to Thomas More Preparatory School after being kicked out of the Catholic high school he formerly attended in the Bronx. Jim comes with a lot of baggage, including a history of poor grades, fights with his peers, and a belligerent attitude toward authority figures. Carl Schmitt (Chris McGarry), headmaster at Thomas More, refers to him as “the most interesting mess we have this year,” and says he accepted him largely because his mother cried during the interview.  

Over the course of the play, we watch as Jim tries to find his place in the world, a struggle that manifests in the same sort of behaviors that marked his past. He is scrappy, loose with the truth, sticky-fingered, and arrogantly self-centered. Yet there is no doubt he is smart, a voracious reader and talented writer, and has the potential to accomplish amazing things. 

Fortunately for him, he possesses the kind of boyish charm that wins over his English teacher (Mr. Leonard) and the headmaster's kind-hearted wife (Annika Boras), both of whom protect and champion him against the increasing likelihood of his being expelled.

The problem for us, however, is that we learn very little about Jim beyond what we see. We have no idea what led him to being so exasperating yet so attractive. Similarly, we learn just enough about the Schmitts and about Alan Hoffman to be distracted from Jim’s story. The playwright also reaches into the same bag that produced his most well-known work, Doubt, to further distract us. The writing is simply not strong enough to juggle all of these side stories, any of which might be worthy of their own play. It probably doesn’t help that Mr. Shanley himself serves as the director; another eye might have helped shape things better.

There is no faulting the acting, however, and Timothée Chalamet (best known for his work in Showtime’s Homeland) is a real find, a bundle of nervous energy with just the right mix of allure and obnoxiousness to paint the portrait of a teen on the verge of either exploding gloriously into the world or imploding into self-destruction.  

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the new website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics. 

No comments:

Post a Comment