By Margret Echeverria
Prodigal Son, the new play written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, premieres to the world at Manhattan Theatre Club this week and asks us to “remember fifteen.” We meet Jim Quinn (Timothée Chalamet), who speaks to us directly and invites us to join him on this journey, beginning in 1965, which shaped him into the man he becomes. We just know he’s going to break our hearts because, yes, we remember fifteen and, despite that warning, we’re charmed; we come willingly.
Young Jim Quinn was born into a blue collar family in the Bronx. He has a mind so curious and character so hungry for intense experience that trouble comes easily to his life by fifteen. Mr. Schmitt (Chris McGarry), the stiffly Catholic headmaster of a private boys’ prep school in New Hampshire, is persuaded by Jim’s mother to give Jim a chance. From the moment they meet Schmitt and Quinn are philosophically mis-matched, but in that meeting it’s more important to Schmitt that, despite what he looks like on paper, Jim Quinn is very bright and eager to explore what academia can offer. Schmitt lives by Christian rules and faith believing that success is only achieved through specific, ridged means and pure motives; there is no other way. Quinn lives by impulse. He charges headlong into forbidden dark corners of existence and unconventional thought.
He also defiantly pushes the boundaries of friendship with his dorm mate, Austin (David Potters). Chalamet shows us a tortured young man delighting at discoveries, feeling deeply the betrayal of disappointment and always expecting to be forgiven simply by virtue of his humanity and maybe the excuse of his youth. Potters as Austin is great casting as the wide-eyed trusting, privileged, polished sweet boy opposite Chalamet’s Quinn who is a brooding, mischief-seeking scrapper in a moth-eaten sweater and scuffed shoes. Potters is our little brother whom we want to protect and with whom we would share popcorn at the movies. The bonding of these two young men over poetry and stolen sips of apricot brandy is touching and this reviewer would have liked to have seen even more of it.
McGarry perfectly embodies the immovable father figure of Schmitt’s character steeped in principles, but McGarry also weaves in beautifully a sense of loss stemming from a recent event in his Schmitt’s life when tragic events unfolded that were completely out of his control. Even before this loss is mentioned, we feel it in the air as we watch him struggle to nurture a more disciplined character in Quinn, believing he can save him from a hard life. Saviors for Quinn, when McGarry becomes disappointed in him, come in the characters of Schmitt’s saintly wife, Louise Schmitt (Annika Boras), and Professor Alan Hoffman (Robert Sean Leonard).
Boras is gorgeous to watch as she contains the brilliant mind of her character in the conventions of the wife of a prep school headmaster in 1960’s New England. Her silky voice does not betray her private grief, but it’s as though her fingertips are on fire when she holds her teacup in silence and contemplates a way out for Quinn. She is also wearing, the first time we see her, a Pendleton skirt to die for as it clings to her hips and gives a slight swish at the back marking not only a perfect figure, but her fierce determination to appropriately harness and delegate her feminine power. Costumes for this show are brilliantly conceived by Jennifer Von Mayrhauser.
Leonard gives us a Professor Hoffman who is more direct in man-to-man discussions with Headmaster Schmitt about the plights of Quinn, and we like the Professor. He feels familiar, like someone we knew in school. But we wonder why he is so committed to the future of this boy. Leonard knocks the wind out of us when he fully reveals his character’s flaws and we are genuinely surprised and deeply disillusioned. It’s a blow we should have seen coming, but Leonard knows how to get you.
The extraordinary set, designed by Santo Loquasto, and exquisite lighting schemes, designed by Natasha Katz, move as fluidly as water to gently guide us back in time to a memory of adolescence lived fully between the beauty and angst of a young boy given an opportunity of a lifetime. In the first few moments of the play, we are treated to original music by Paul Simon evocative of elusive memory of years past.
The language in Shanley’s script is beautifully crafted. Actors live their entire lives and don’t get to say such original and juicy turns of phrase. But it must be said that Chalamet does not rest on the strength of the words, he brings this tortured young boy right to you. He touches a common memory in our hearts; he’s that dangerous brilliant young man you never could have brought home to your parents and/or the young lonely person that you were at fifteen. We are hoping it all works out for him. We want him to find his way home. The Prodigal Son of the Bible finds his way home to his father who weeps with joy at his return. Chalamet’s journey as young Quinn in Shanley’s Prodigal Son weaves his way through two father figures who ultimately betray him to find his way to a more modern interpretation of the parable: One is home when one finds love and respect for one’s whole self. It’s a lesson not many of us ever really learn before forty, much less before eighteen.
Prodigal Son written and directed by John Patrick Shanley.
With Annika Boras (Louise Schmitt), Timothée Chalamet (Jim Quinn), Robert Sean Leonard (Alan Hoffman), Chris McGarry (Carl Schmitt) and David Potters (Austin).
The Creative Team for Prodigal Son features Santo Loquasto (scenic design), Jennifer Von Mayrhuaser (costume design), Natasha Katz (lighting design), Fritz Patton (sound design), Paul Simon (Original Music), and Charlotte Fleck (dialect coach).
Stage Manager, Colleen M. Sherry; Production Stage manager, Kyle Gates; General Manager, Florie Seery; Director Of Artistic Operations, Amy Gilkes Loe; Director of Casting, Nancy Piccione; Associate Artistic Producer, Stephen M. Kaus. Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club: Artistic Director, Lynne Meadow; Executive Producer, Barry Grove. Through March 20th at MTC New York City Center – Stage 1 – 131 West 55th Street; Single tickets for Prodigal Son are available by calling CityTix at 212-581-1212, online by visiting www.nycitycenter.org, or by visiting New York City Center box office (131 West 55th Street). Running time: 95 minutes.