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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Doubt and Defiance were about the hierarchal institutions Shanley knew as a Catholic high school student in the '60s and as a marine at Camp Lejeune in the '70s. Storefront Church was the result of his wandering through the Bronx many years later and then connecting the many little informal churches he saw to current financial and social problems. With Prodigal Son Mr. Shanley has returned to his teen years, this time taking us back to his junior and senior years at The Thomas More Preparatory School in New Hampshire. While packed with incident and passionate interchanges, the new play as directed by Shanley, plays out in just 90 well-paced minutes.
As the author's note in the program makes clear, this is Shanley's most autobiographical play. While changes were made to simplify and make a point here and there, even the names remain mostly unchanged in the interest of sharing these life-changing years of a troubled Bronx boy with the audience — a boy who as he puts it was "rather violent, a bit delusional, hungry for all kinds of things and wild-eyed as a rescue dog." Given the exclusive prep school setting what we have here is a '60s coming of age story seasoned with literary and philosophical dialogue.
Shanley did change the name of his alter ego to Jim Quinn. Theater veterans Robert Sean Leonard and Chris McGarry play Alan Hoffman the head of the English department and Carl Schmitt, headmaster and religion teacher who will determine whether the school will satisfy Jim's hunger for emotional connections and understanding of life's big questions. Unsurprisingly, the teachers have their own problems and the brilliant but troublesome outsider (the Bronx is an alien country to everyone at this small sequestered school) strongly affects both.
Theatergoers are likely to know Leonard and McGarry, the former a Tony Award winner making a welcome return to the stage after his long run in the House series. Both are excellent, but the role of Jim is the play's centerpiece and 21-year-old stage newcomer Timothee Chalamet whose work so far has been mostly on screen (notably as young Tom in Interstellar and Finn Walden in Homelandand the film) is very much their equal.
While not without humor, this is neither light entertainment or a romance. The only female character is headmaster Schmitt's wife Louise (Annika Boras making the most of a small but important role). She serves tea and sympathy, but no hanky panky, along with her private class for advanced English students. The tiny class in which Jim is enrolled is spending a semester exploring T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" which Jim doesn't understand or like. His dislike is based on his belief that it won't be good in a hundred years ("it isn't good now"); also his aversion to Eliot's appearance ("He looks like an undertaker"). What's more, Jim is more interested in Mrs. Schmitt's opinion of his own poem rather than Eliot's. She likes it but sees him using poetry as "a ladder to climb out of some terrible place."
Like Alan Hoffman she recognizes the boy's unusual mind. For that matter, so does Headmaster Schmitt but Jim's anti-social behavior (hitting younger boys, drinking, stealing, explosive remarks about religion) put him at odds with Hoffman and his wife's view of the boy as a star to be nurtured, rather than a disastrous presence best removed.
The subject of sex does come up in a scene with roommate Austin (an effective debut by David Potters), the only love affair for Jim is with books. And so, for anyone in the mood for Shanley in a more light weight, romantic mood a DVD of his hit movie Moonstruck is likely be preferable to this bookish, philosophical look at Jim's journey from the Bronx to bucolic New Hampshire.
Jim is 15 in the opening scene, 17 in the final one. Both these scenes have him address the audience directly with this sum-up of the up and down side of the experience: "I always had a book. I was fifteen. Do you remember fifteen? For me, it was a special, beautiful room in hell." The books he's never without include writers like Socrates and Dickens, but he also finds more wisdom worth listening to in historical romance writer Rafael Sabatini than most teachers he's encountered — that's all except Mr. Hoffman with whom he develops a close relationship that includes chess games peppered with some of the play's best dialogue.
Like many small New England schools, Thomas More is housed in a former private mansion set amidst tall, stately trees. A far cry from the streets of the Bronx. A replica of that mansion looms in the distance as Jim introduces himself before a diner rolls out for the interview with the headmaster which will determine his future. This is the first of numerous locations thus rolled on and off stage on a wooden platform to accommodate interactions in Schmitt's office and home, Jim and Austin's room, Hoffman's living room, a school classroom and the grounds outside the school.
The plot's increasing tensions are propelled forward by the question as to whether the desperate neediness that drives Jim's self-destructive actions will prevent the school from helping him find his way out of his go-nowhere inner city background and into the less lonely, more meaningful life he yearns for. Instead of exciting swordplay, as in Jim's beloved Sabatino novels, to bring all these tensions to a head, the climax in Prodigal Son is fought with verbal confrontations, the most poignant and disturbing between Jim and Alan Hoffman, the always supportive English teacher.
In view of the admittedly autobiographical plot foundation, I suppose you wouldn't be wrong to say that Prodigal Son has a happy ending since Shanley-cum-Jim's two years at Thomas More were followed by a successful life as a stage and screen writer. But then there's that opening and closing description of his time there as "a special, beautiful room in hell" to make you ponder the bittersweet undercurrents of this poignant stage memoir.