John Patrick Shanley’s new play, “Prodigal Son,” lavishes an inordinate amount of attention on a sensitive 15-year-old working-class kid bearing a striking resemblance to the playwright, who says as much in a program note. Mercifully, Shanley has done an excellent job of directing his own play in its premiere at Manhattan Theater Club, entrusting the role of this overindulged youth to the extraordinarily gifted 20-year-old Timothee Chalamet (“Homeland”).
Jim Quinn (Chalamet), a scrappy lad from the Bronx, arrives at a proper Catholic prep school in New Hampshire with a chip on his shoulder the size of a brick. His grades aren’t so hot, and coming from a socially insignificant background, his family has no political pull. But the headmaster’s wife, a saintly woman played with admirable restraint by Annika Boras, speaks up for the boy. The headmaster himself (a solid performance from Chris McGarry) is won over when Jim’s mother weeps hot tears in the interview.
Who wouldn’t do something desperate to get into Saint Thomas More Preparatory School? As seen in the gauzy distance, set designer Santo Loquasto’s fanciful rendering places it in a graceful old mansion, softly lighted (by Natasha Katz) and framed by Chekhovian birch trees. That celestial sound you hear floating overhead like a soft breeze is the original music by Paul Simon (yes, that Paul Simon).
Not only is young Jim accepted to this dreamy place, he’s awarded a full scholarship. And while this rough boy from the Bronx is academically and socially out of his depth, his chances of survival improve when the master assigns him to the special care of Alan Hoffman, a young English professor played with acute intelligence and considerable warmth by Robert Sean Leonard. (“You’re good with the troubled ones,” the headmaster tells this infinitely patient teacher.)
For the first time in his life, Jim has mentors who fully engage his intellect, spar with him on matters of faith and encourage his emerging talent as a writer and a thinker. Hoffman is especially supportive of his theories about literature, his adolescent inanities as well as his more original thoughts and curiously poetic way of expressing himself. (“It made me feel bleak,” he says of the ugly and overcrowded public school he attended.)
Chalamet projects the emotional intensity and quicksilver moves of a restless young mind greedily seizing on — and questioning — the knowledge he’s acquiring. But whatever personal attention he’s given, it’s never enough for this kid, who demands no less than constant reassurance, validation and direction — not to mention forgiveness for all his tiresome acts of adolescent rebellion. Even after two years, only a week before graduation, he’s still blaming the faculty for his own fears and frustrations and acting out through anti-social acts like stealing from his classmates.
Surprisingly, Shanley makes little effort to delve deeper into such a troubled character, especially one who obviously means so much to him. But aside from throwaway references to a mother who loves him and an older brother serving in Vietnam, we’re given few specifics about his background in the Bronx or his social life at Saint Thomas More.
The only hint of action in the play is a clumsy melodramatic twist at the end of this introspective piece. The real but largely unexplored drama lies in the conflict between the literary Jim, who writes beautiful poetry and philosophical essays, and the self-destructive Jim, who drinks, steals, tells whopping lies, and seems determined to get himself kicked out of school.