John Patrick Shanley looks back at his prep-school days and gives himself an A for both brains and beauty. His new play, “Prodigal Son,” opened Tuesday at MTC’s Center Stage 1, and while it doesn’t have much to offer as a play, it does tell us much about this writer’s high opinion of himself.
In a Playbill note, Shanley writes that “Prodigal Son” is about his days at the Thomas More Preparatory School in New Hampshire in the late 1960s. “It is a true story for the most part,” he reports.
Shanley claims victim status for his younger self, a teenager named Jim Quinn, who is Irish, poor, and from the Bronx. He’s on scholarship at the school, and doesn’t get along with the other kids because basically he is just too damned smart and good-looking. His mediocre grades don’t begin to reflect his brilliance. He’s talking Socrates and Plato, and everyone else is studying T. S. Eliot, whom Quinn believes will not be read a hundred years from now.
Quinn actually talks like a 65-year-old playwright who took an adult education course in the great figures of Western civilization. Teachers tell us he’s a bad kid. He bullies other students, he steals some records, he likes to get drunk, he’s fixated on the Nazis, he doesn’t believe in God. Having gone to a Catholic high school in the late 1960s, I can tell you that the last bit about God would have gotten him into deep trouble back then. Otherwise, he’s a potential Rhodes Scholar. Timothee Chalamet (“Homeland”) succeeds in making Jim Quinn slightly more edgy in his demeanor than he is insufferable in his superiority.
“Prodigal Son” is without conflict for most of its 95 minutes. Yes, the school’s headmaster and founder (Chris McGarry) keeps threatening to expel Quinn, but we know he won’t, because his teacher-wife (Annika Boras) thinks the kid is gifted, as does another teacher (Robert Sean Leonard).
Shanley doesn’t drop the other shoe in the last 10 minutes of “Prodigal Son.” He unloads a whole department store of assorted revelations regarding inappropriate sexual advances, recriminations and betrayals, and a tale about a dead child who happened to be named Jim, too. Shanley does know how to work up a bathetic lather in record time.
Two scenes under Shanley’s own direction emerge as real howlers before we get to the play’s action-packed denouement. In one scene, the married teacher couple (McGarry and Boras) enjoy a dinner of such overextended politeness that it comes as a shock to later learn that they’ve actually consummated their marriage. Equally riveting for all the wrongs reasons is the scene in which Quinn coyly asks a teacher to grade his good looks, a seduction of sorts that turns the teacher into the play’s villain.
As I said, I went to a Catholic high school in the late 1960s. Except for the bit about what happened to students back then who didn’t believe in God, the only other thing I identified with in this play was the spectacle of watching a moderately attractive young man think his biggest challenge in life would be fending off sexual advances from all those old perverts out there.