Prodigal Son

John Patrick Shanley unburdens himself of his past in his latest drama.

Robert Sean Leonard and Timothée Chalamet in MTC's production of Prodigal Son.
Robert Sean Leonard and Timothée Chalamet in MTC's production of Prodigal Son.
(© Joan Marcus)

If you want to witness a true star-is-born performance, head on over to New York City Center where an actor named Timothée Chalamet is delivering astonishing work in John Patrick Shanley's autobiographical new play, Prodigal Son. Chalamet has a particularly difficult task ahead of him: Not only must he appear opposite several admired New York stage veterans, but he must also serve as a stand-in for the author himself. And he does so with such fire that you'd never realize he's only 20 years old.

It's a preternaturally intelligent performance in a production of Manhattan Theatre Club that hasn’t entirely realized its full potential, but is still extremely moving. Described by the author (who also directs) as a "true story for the most part," Prodigal Son is set during the period in which Shanley studied at the Thomas More Preparatory School in New Hampshire. It was 1963. He was 15, attending on scholarship, and hungry for the inexplicable something that all young men that age desire but don't yet have the vocabulary to describe.

Shanley calls his onstage persona Jim Quinn. Jim (Chalamet) is the only blue-collar kid from the Bronx in this bucolic setting. He's got big swashbuckling ideas, is prone to petty theft and breaking the rules, and has a longing to make something of himself. Under the tutelage of teachers Alan Hoffman (Tony winner Robert Sean Leonard) and Louise Schmitt (Annika Boras), Jim begins to find himself as a young writer — but Louise's husband, the strict headmaster Carl Schmitt (Chris McGarry), is hot on Jim's trail of minor offenses and can make or break his life.

Jim is a truly fascinating character, one imbued by the author with the unreliability of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and the restlessness of Ralph Berger in Awake and Sing! Chalamet, who before this appeared onstage in The Talls and in a minor role on Showtime's Homeland, delivers a live-wire performance that is compulsively watchable and so detailed that if you blink, you risk missing something. Immersing himself in his character, Chalamet becomes a gruffly articulate dreamer who can charm with beautiful poetry and preternatural intellect, while simultaneously behaving like a street-tough teenager.

On the whole, though, Prodigal Son, both on page and in production, never completely rises to the level of curiosity we feel about its protagonist. As a coming-of-age story, it doesn't offer particularly new insights into the genre or Shanley’s body of work. The script moves slowly, and a solid half of the 100-minute running time is devoted either to exposition or to mood setting. And a late-in-the-game twist registers with more of an "of course" than an "a-ha."

As director, Shanley guides the four other company members to fine performances, though none that reach the height of Chalamet's. As the teacher who takes Jim on as his project, Leonard is a kindly presence, though he never plows the depths of the character's unexpectedly sinister motives. McGarry and Boras are understated and believable as the opposing figures in Jim's educational life; McGarry is firm and unwavering from his beliefs while Boras is warm in a maternal way. David Potters adds some levity to the proceedings as Austin, Jim's nervous roommate.

Shanley's creative team fires on all cylinders. Santo Loquasto's sliding set and Natasha Katz's lighting beautifully evoke the desolation of New England during wintertime. Jennifer von Mayrhauser's costumes go a long way in defining the personalities of each character (particularly Boras' Louise). Fitz Patton provides a looming soundscape where a clock tick signifies someone running out of time. And in his unmistakable style, 12-time Grammy winner Paul Simon provides a musical underscore that's filled with haunted loneliness.

By the end of Prodigal Son, one wants to tell young Jim Quinn that everything will be OK. He'll grow up and find his place in a world that wants him, winning an Oscar for Moonstruck and a Tony for Doubt, and even penning one of the world's great cult films, Joe Versus the Volcano. But everyone had to start somewhere, and it's that place that shapes the person you become.

Featured In This Story