John Patrick Shanley’s “Prodigal Son”: Too Prodigal?

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Timothée Chalamet in John Patrick Shanley's Prodigal Son. Photos by Joan Marcus.

With Prodigal Son, John Patrick Shanley has written a fascinating play. This doesn’t mean he’s written an entirely successful play, although he’s completely successful with the performance that, as his own director, he gets from Timothée Chalamet as the focal figure, a deeply distressed schoolboy named Jim Quinn.

According to the playwright’s program note, Jim Quinn is actually a moniker for Shanley himself. Thus, Prodigal Son is nothing less than a memoir conceived as a play. There you have the fascinating source for this intermissionless, 90-minute work, and there you have its complex flaw. Certainly anyone who knows anything about Shanley but doesn’t read his program note before the performance begins (as I hadn’t) will immediately wonder how autobiographical Prodigal Son is.

At the outset, Jim Quinn steps to the edge of Santo Loquasto’s basic, beautiful set — an alley of bare-branched trees that progress in forced perspective to a small house of many windows. He confides to the audience that he’s about to tell the story of his volatile experiences at Thomas More Preparatory School in New Hampshire during the early 1960s.

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Having been tossed out of a previous institution, Jim leads us into a scene in which he’s given not only a second chance but also a scholarship by Thomas More’s founder, Carl Schmitt (Chris McGarry), who in time questions whether he made the right decision to bring the young man in. (Throughout the play, Loquasto’s locales, including offices and a dorm room, smoothly roll on and off.)

Though it’s blatantly obvious that Jim is a brilliant boy and astonishingly well read, he’s also a chronic troublemaker who drinks on campus, beats up other students and steals, among other shenanigans. He fervently dissembles about his bad behavior all while taking umbrage at being, as he habitually insists, unfairly attacked.

Jim — whose personality quirks are exposed masterfully by the thin, hyperkinetic Chalamet — also has his on-campus partisans. Most prominent is Alan Hoffman (Robert Sean Leonard), an English teacher wowed by Jim’s intellect at 16, 17 and 18. Schmitt’s wife, Louise (Annika Boras), is also taken with Jim’s smarts and even with a poem he shows her during their class on T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. (Jim doesn’t care for the Eliot classic — he dislikes the poet’s demeanor.) The last of the play’s characters is Austin Schmitt (David Potter), the headmaster’s nephew who rooms with Jim and, despite enduring Jim’s occasional physical attacks, forgives him in the face of obvious neediness.

The sequences in which Jim interacts with the denizens of Thomas More can be inordinately effective; Shanley long-ago established his ability to situate himself well in his plays. Doubt is perhaps the best example.

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Jim and Austin share only one pithy scene, but the mood changes that occur within it are mesmerizing. Alternately attacking Austin and confiding his worst fears, Jim runs a gamut from A to way beyond Z. His afternoon with Louise also illuminates as it demonstrates the ways in which Jim is both confident and uncertain. (There’s a subsequent scene in which the Schmitts offer clues to something in their past that suggests why Louise may favor Jim.)

Hoffman and Jim meet more than once, and over a chess game symbolizing the shift in their teacher-pupil status, they evolve into something more akin to equals who share the same intellectual pursuits. Shanley explores whether there is the potential for a still-different kind of relationship. Throughout their charged exchange, Leonard (always completely at home on stage) and Chalamet eat the theatrics with a spoon.

Several tense scenes with Carl slowly lead to a late set-to that becomes nearly combustible. It involves the possibility that Jim’s rule-breaking exploits have put his graduation at risk, and Carl offering Jim a chance to admit his wrongdoings and to face whatever consequences eventuate.

It’s this confrontation, acted with the power of a heavyweight fight, that more than anything else throws a medium-sized monkey wrench into Shanley’s script. (The following may strike some as a spoiler.) Convinced that Jim stole classical records from a fellow student and that he is hung over — both charges that Jim denies and which the audience knows to be valid — Carl listens to the evasive boy elaborate on his reasons for ignoring school authority. His response is to admire Jim’s talent for self-expression.

The problem here is that as precociously accomplished as Jim is, he’s unmistakably a chronic liar — and no one ever calls him on it. Shanley’s script includes references to Jim’s unpopularity with other faculty members and, apparently, the entire student body, but such crowds are never heard from. The option of counseling is never mentioned.

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Why Shanley doesn’t go there is impossible to know. But in not emphasizing Jim, despite his superior intelligence, as a thoroughly unacceptable student, the playwright avoids presenting Jim for what he is. Which is to say that since Shanley informs us that he is Jim, he tempers his attitude towards himself and compounds his self-exoneration in a flabby final scene featuring all five characters. By keeping those who oppose Jim from behaving as they very likely might have, Shanley sides with himself.

Shanley’s criticism of Catholicism is undoubtedly (no pun intended) another contributing element. Carl’s Catholic beliefs and commitments are the reason he created Thomas More, the acknowledged martyr. And Jim, wronged as he claims to be, is himself a potential martyr. Carl’s adherence to hard-and-fast school rules and doctrine, therefore, is a sin — his sin. Ultimately, Shanley has the founder of the school needing understanding and forgiveness more, perhaps, than young Jim.

Since the playwright not only makes it known that Prodigal Son is his portrait of himself as a teenager, and since his subsequent success as a writer is very well known, what’s plain as the appealing nose on Chalamet’s face (there’s a lengthy segment about Jim’s being handsome) is that whatever young John Patrick Shanley may have been as a youth, he’s turned out a bit of all right in his maturity.

This still doesn’t alter the fact that Shanley wrote a play about himself that he directs. Having offered all three opportunities to himself, should he not have accepted them? Instead of producing a play of many exemplary parts, a different director might have led him to achieve an even more exemplary whole.