St. John Hankin was no George Bernard Shaw; he wasn’t even a Harley Granville-Barker. But in “The Return of the Prodigal,” he had something to contribute to the Edwardian “drama of ideas,” and it’s too bad that the Mint Theater couldn’t get a handle on it. Helmer (and Mint a.d.) Jonathan Bank’s misguided modern-dress update of this 1905 period piece — about a wastrel son who returns home to shame his materialistic mercantile family — doesn’t make Hankin’s ideas any more relevant for our time. But it does manage to make the characters look like idiots just for being true to their own times.
Like his contemporary and colleague Granville-Barker (whose plays have gotten far better readings from the Mint), Hankin was appalled by the hypocritical values of the landed gentry and newly affluent mercantile classes of his generation. So he really lets it rip when prodigal son Eustace Jackson (Roderick Hill) returns to the family bosom and exposes his father and brother for their heartless pursuit of personal gain and contemptuous disregard for the rest of humanity.
Eustace is every bit the bounder himself. Having squandered all the money and job opportunities his father gave him, he is perfectly content — to the point of dealing in deceit, subterfuge and a spot of blackmail — to sponge off his family for the rest of his lazy, useless life.
That doesn’t take away from the thrust of Hankin’s social criticisms, which do, indeed, seem remarkably applicable to our own times.
But these criticisms lose much of their force in the context of the modern setting, a clean-lined and characterless habitat of white walls and nondescript furnishings. Carrying over his bleached-out color palette to the costumes, designer Clint Ramos comes up with your basic Eileen Fisher, with a heavy hit of Barney’s.
Strictly speaking (and despite the jarring absence of national or even class accents), this is not a literal updating, in that the period references are scrupulously maintained. But hearing a silver-haired merchant in a natty designer suit bemoan the outrageously high price of 25 pounds sterling for a tailor’s bill is disorienting.
Even more distracting is watching a virginal daughter of the Edwardian era carry on a modest flirtation while exposing her breasts in a revealing sundress.
Although taking the play out of period is obviously supposed to heighten its contemporary application, it does serious damage to the characters, whose lives and social pursuits seem alternately selfishly cruel and insensitive or silly and absurd. Worse, the lack of grounding gives the actors license to make whatever they will of their characters.
Some of them have simply brought a contemporary sensibility to their roles. Hill, who plays Eustace as a silly ass from Planet Downtown, denies that prodigal both the personal charm and the ethical ambivalence that would give the witty wastrel his irresistible appeal.
As Lady Faringford, Kate Levy takes the modern tone even more over the top, archly commenting on her condescending views.
To one degree or another, the rest of the cast attempt to honor the period sensibility, the modern clothes and American accent be damned. The men, for the most part, ignore the impossibility of their task and play it in neutral.
But you have to feel for Tandy Cronyn, as the dithery Mrs. Jackson, and Leah Curney, as her spinster-daughter Violet, who put on the gamest faces and play their parts with such integrity, they might almost be in period costume.