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Prodigal Son | Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Timothée Chalamet in Prodigal Son (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Timothée Chalamet in Prodigal Son (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Prodigal Son is a "true story for the most part," says playwright/director John Patrick Shanley (Outside Mullingar) as he channels his turbulent teen days in 1963. "I was fifteen. Do you remember fifteen? For me, it was a special, beautiful room in hell."

Shanley calls himself Jim Quinn in Prodigal Son, the Manhattan Theater Company's production at City Center's Stage I, conjuring up his struggles as a misfit Bronx kid in a prestigious New Hampshire prep school. With shadows recalling Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, Jim searches for that something he cannot really yet identify, something that will make him be important. Shanley remembers himself as "wild-eyed as a rescue dog."

Timothée Chalamet (TV's Homeland) is 100 percent authentic as this complex well-read youth, eliciting both empathy and frustration. No doubt, Jim could drive you crazy, but he's so brilliant and funny that those who get him, like his roommate, Austin (David Potters), find him fascinating.

Not so much Carl Schmidt (Chris McGarry), stern headmaster of The Thomas More Preparatory School, who had misgivings about accepting Jim as a scholarship student. He realizes Jim is a blue-collar kid from the Bronx city streets. Who knows how he will fare with the more prosperous students in this small conservative Catholic school in rural New England? He warns Jim about respecting values and losing his scholarship if he cannot stop breaking the rules and getting into trouble.

Jim's self-searching distress does draw him to trouble, nothing worse than petty theft, fights and drinking, but the events build through the 90-minute play. He lies incessantly. He wants to belong but also stand out and succeed. Since Jim is such a voracious reader, the headmaster's wife, Louise, played sympathetically by Annika Boras, tutors Jim and another student on T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," but Jim dislikes the poem. In Shanley's program notes, the playwright admits the reason why. "He wasn't for me because I didn't want to BE him. That was how I judged poets them." Jim would rather discuss his own poetry with Louise, which she rates as ""a ladder to climb out of some terrible place."

Another supporter is Jim's English teacher, Alan Hoffman (Robert Sean Leonard), who forms a bond with the boy, playing chess and discussing books. Besides favorite writers like Dickens and Socrates, Jim is influenced by favorite old romantic novels by Roberto Sabatino with swashbuckling thrusts and parries to gain attention. The finale, however, is all verbal, an emotional head-to-head with Mr. Hoffman who not only admires Jim's intellect but reveals a personal attraction towards him that horrifies the boy.

With Natasha Katz's lighting, Santo Loquasto designed a setting as beautiful as a romantic Douglas Sirk movie drama. The opening backdrop shows generous tree lines framing a dollhouse school with lighted windows. The trees slide back for indoor sets of the Schmidt's living room and school rooms. A stunning addition is haunting background music by Paul Simon.

Although Jim asked, "Do you remember fifteen? For me, it was a special, beautiful room in hell," the future Tony Award winner (Doubt) and Academy Award winner (Moonstruck), John Patrick Shanley, certainly climbed out of the hell of his teenage years.

Also seen in

Manhattan Theatre Club: City Center Stage I
131 -West 55th Street
Cast: Annika Boras, Timothée Chalamet, Robert Sean Leonard, Chris McGarry, and David Potters
90 minutes. No intermission
Directed: John Patrick Shanley
Playwright: John Patrick Shanley
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors