Prodigal Son – A Rebellious Original Mind

There are occasions in theater when you know you’re watching an authentic star. I mean that in the best possible sense – not one who necessarily becomes famous, but a talent so obvious and deep that his/her progress should be monitored with relish. I felt that way upon seeing Meryl Streep when she first performed in New York. Today, it was Timothée Chalamet who caught and riveted my attention. With only a short roster of television roles and the film Interstellar to his credit, Chalamet has yet to be ‘discovered.’

As playwright John Patrick Shanley’s alter ego, this young actor inhabits the conceited, volatile, self-sabotaging, precocious Jim Quinn with conviction and creativity. Every visceral reaction manifests a series of interconnected gestures reflecting quicksilver thought and overwrought emotion. Complex in retrospect, they’re consistently credible. Jim’s falsehoods are so persuasive, they might contest a lie detector. Whip smart quotes seem familiar to him. Swashbuckling moves never appear out of character. Only an actor with this kind of quiet, insistent charisma could believably induce school officials to let him remain under succeeding circumstances.

Chris McGarry and Timothée Chalamet

“I always had a book,” Jim says picking one up from the ground. I was 15. Do you remember 15? For me it was a special, beautiful room in hell.” Like Shanley in the 1960s, this boy from a lower class Bronx background is interviewed for and given a scholarship to the Roman Catholic, Thomas More Preparatory School in New Hampshire. Like Shanley, Jim was expelled from his last school for saying he didn’t believe in God “just to shake things up.” A superior, searching mind is sufficient reason for high recommendation.

Remember classmates who didn’t respect authority simply because its appointees were in control? Those who, usually bored and resentful, gleefully upset status quo? Some were artists, some violent. We all knew them.

Robert Sean Leonard and Timothée Chalamet

The new student offends by wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with ‘Pray For War.’ (His brother’s in Vietnam.) Alan Hoffman, an understanding Mr. Chips stand-in, brings this and Jim’s curious obsession with Nazis to the attention of Headmaster, Carl Schmitt. (Chris McGarry’s grounded portrayal makes his character’s difficult choices more interesting. Robert Sean Leonard inhabits his role like a bespoke suit.)

In a decision that illuminates exactly the kind of institution at which we find ourselves, Schmitt tells Hoffman that as a pacifist, he has a point of view and that point of view shouldn’t be imposed on students. In regard to to Nazis, Jim is entitled to areas of uncommon interest. Schmitt’s own Comparative Religion Class just weathered several unexpected days on Taoism due to the boy’s persistent inquiry. “He’s the most interesting mess we have this year,” the Head comments, asking that Hoffman keep an eye on Jim.

“I was six the winter of 1966.” Jim offers nerdy roommate Austin apricot brandy purloined from a local private home. (David Potters is low key and natural in the minor role.) Not only is stealing at issue, but alcohol on campus is forbidden. Austin is naturally wary. It’s clear he admires Jim’s bravado and his way with words, however. They talk about girls and life aspirations fleshing out the more obviously teenage part of Jim’s character.

Timothée Chalamet and Annika Boras

A tutorial with Schmitt’s wife, Louise, includes argument about T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, an original poem of Jim’s that refers to God and the Nazis, and his personal view on aspects of theology. She likes him. (Actress Annika Boras is appropriately thoughtful and restrained.)

A chess game with Hoffman brings up Emily Dickinson, Jesus, Hericlitus, and Socrates. “He would’ve liked you,” Hoffman says referring to the iconic philosopher. “I’ll say this much,” Jim responds, “I’d’ve talked him out of dying.” Discourse is wonderfully intriguing.

David Potters, Annika Boras, Chris McGarry, Timothée Chalamet, Robert Sean Leonard

The boy steals, drinks, lies, insults staff and “beats up” freshmen. (“I was just kidding around.”) When compassionately approached, he ends up biting all the hands that feed him, disparaging supporters while blaspheming beliefs on which the institution stands. Will Schmitt expel him before graduation? Can he be “saved?” Catholics, we’re reminded, don’t believe in predestination.

Even with its slightly muddled denouement, John Patrick Shanley’s most recent play is a cogent, beautifully written piece offering not just a compelling lead, but much on which to chew. Recommended.

Santo Loquasto’s Scenic Design is inspired. Between two patches of white birch trees (Chekov anyone?) stands the main school building, a receded doll’s house whose window lights go on a off at apt moments. Interiors slide in and out downstage offering just enough particulars.

Natasha Katz’ Lighting Design is superb. Every change of tenor is reflected as skillfully as season and time of day.

Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening:Timothée Chalamet

Manhattan Theatre Club presents
Prodigal Son
Written and Directed by John Patrick Shanley
City Center Stage 1
131 West 55th Street

About Alix Cohen (1186 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.