Prodigal Son opened in January, off-Broadway in the Manhattan Theatre Club at the New York City Center. MTC had also produced The Father, with Frank Langella (Read my comments in the June 8 entry below.) After a brief extension, for which I was very grateful, Prodigal Son closed on March 27th, and I was able to be there for its final performance. It was both written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, author of the film Moonstruck, the Tony-nominated Outside Mullingar, and Doubt, which won both a Pulitzer and a Tony for best new play in 2005. The man has been around the block, and he can pretty much be counted on for terrific dialogue and complex moral explorations. My cup of tea.
Shanley has revealed that the play is almost entirely autobiographical, including many unchanged names and detailed conversations he recalled from his own youth. Set in 1965, it is the story of a very bright, very rebellious fifteen-year-old renegade from the Bronx (Timothée Chalamet), who gets a “lucky” break by being awarded a scholarship to an exclusive New Hampshire boarding school. Despite his superior intellect and highly polished writing skills, he spends his two years there constantly on the verge of being sacked, because he is also a thoroughly unlikable liar, a thief, a bully, and an egotistical snob. But … he has charm.
Also in the picture is Alan Hoffman, the dedicated teacher played by Robert Sean Leonard, who is determined to make the boy succeed, graduate, and go off to college with a prestigious scholarship. Many of us remember Leonard’s 1989 film debut on the other side of the desk in Dead Poets Society, as preppie Neil Perry, opposite Robin Williams’ crack performance as the unorthodox Mr. Keating. Since then, he has had a highly respected if often unrecognized career on both stage and screen, including a seven-year run as Dr. James Wilson in House. Like Dead Poets, Prodigal Son is also devoted to the duel between two strong-willed individuals, teacher and student, trapped by the business of education.
In 1965, I was fresh off my first year of teaching, in a somewhat less prestigious partial-boarding school across the Connecticut River in Vermont. In that year, I too took an interest in turning around the life of one particularly bright student who had had some bad breaks. I am very familiar, both with the frustrations and disappointments, and with the joy and pride in the small triumphs that can come with such an effort. There are thousands of stubborn, obsessed, brilliant teachers, mentors, coaches and parents all over the world faced with just such challenges. And at its core, Prodigal Son is a tribute to them all.
Shanley’s alter-ego is Jim Quinn, possibly the only fictionalized name in the play. Trusting the playwright when he reveals in the program that this is all true, we know from the get-go that Jim is going to turn out just fine, one way or another, because Shanley did. And it’s a major tribute to the author and the two principal actors that we are kept in suspense for the full hour and a half of the play. Chalamet is an astounding young actor, and well worth seeking out on film or stage. I recognized him from the bit role he played briefly in the TV series Homeland, before they blew him up. In Prodigal Son he brings into sharp focus the full scope of adolescent anger and angst, the weird and wry mix of cockiness and insecurity, and the familiar disdain for the ordered world of adults that we associate with street-wise kids who have had few breaks. And Robert Sean Leonard is his perfectly matched foil.
There is an ongoing common dilemma with narratives that struggle to be accurately biographical or autobiographical. How close must a playwright stay to the truth? Must all details be as accurate as possible? Or is there an implicit license to distort stories, make up events, and invent situations just to make the play work, to give it dramatic appeal beyond the more mundane history of real life? Or on the other hand, is there some obligation for a playwright to stick to the truth of what happened, even at the expense of dramatic structure, even if it hurts the play?
History is fact. Plays are stories. To a dramatic artist, it’s very tempting, often very necessary, to distort history. It happens all the time. But I’m going to guess that just the opposite may have happened this time. At the very end of the play, Hoffman subtly reveals an untoward physical attraction to young Quinn that turns upside down everything the play has been about from the get-go, converting it into a ninety-minute shaggy dog story. I don’t know whether John Patrick Shanley was himself actually the victim of a sexual advance by his teacher, but other than an overwhelming urge to tell the truth, I can’t think of any reason to turn the play on its ear by introducing a whole new theme that remains unresolved. Up to five minutes before the final curtain, this was NOT a play about a pederast. If it was intended to be, then I missed something very important, and I learned nothing about either character relating to their central relationship, intentions, or needs. Not that Shanley couldn’t have written such a play if he had chosen to. But to suggest that that was the secret that has driven the action does a major disservice to this play.
Still, Prodigal Son remains an engaging 99% of a fine play about the universal struggle to save a life, to communicate, to connect ideas, and to inspire. I’m sure it will make frequent appearances in regional and school theatre seasons. It should generate some hot discussions, and it would make excellent fodder for a fine movie. I look forward to seeing future revisions and productions.