It’s been my observation that playwrights who write plays about their own lives, autobiographical plays, nearly always indulge in the conceits, first, that they are unquestionably worthy of that focus and, second, that every iota of their lives is significant. I think of Arthur Miller and After the Fall and A. R. Gurney and What I Did Last Summer—and now Prodigal Son by John Patrick Shanley (2005 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for Doubt; 1988 Oscar for Moonstruck). When my friend Diana asked me after the show why a playwright would want to write such a play as Prodigal Son, I said that I always felt as if the writers had something they needed to write through, for their own benefit—writing, as I’ve noted before, can be cathartic—but that I also always wondered why they felt it was necessary to inflict it on the rest of us. Shanley’s Prodigal Son, even at only 95 minutes, is an apt example of what I mean.
The world première of Prodigal Son, which Shanley, 65, wrote last year, started previews on Stage I at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center home on 19 January and opened on 9 February; it’s slated to close on 27 March (after a week’s extension). Diana and I caught it on Friday evening, 19 February. The play’s overtly autobiographical, as Shanley, who’s long history with MTC includes 10 previous productions, states in the program: “It’s a true story for the most part. The changes I’ve made have been to simplify, or to make a point.” Except for the young character who stands in for the author, Shanley affirms that “most of the names remain unchanged, or only slightly altered.”
Prodigal Son covers the years 1965, when young James Quinn (Timothée Chalamet), then 15, meets Carl Schmitt (Chris McGarry), headmaster and founder of Thomas More Preparatory School in Harrisville, New Hampshire, at a diner in Keene for what amounts to his admissions interview, to 1968, the year Jim graduates from Thomas More at 17. An Irish Catholic kid from a tough neighborhood in the Bronx, Jim’s a scholarship student at the boys’ Catholic prep school, after having been expelled from Cardinal Spellman High in New York City. He’s an obviously extremely intelligent boy, and what Jesse Green in New York magazine called “a questing soul” (stop me if you’ve this before) with a head full of poetry who’s a voracious reader of such diverse authors as Heraclitus of Ephesus, Rafael Sabatini (Scaramouche), T. S. Eliot (The Wasteland), H. Rider Haggard (She), Siegfried Sassoon, Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front), and others whose names and works get dropped throughout the play. Jim displays a talent for writing and critical thinking. But he’s angry and confused, picks fights with other students (often, apparently, the freshmen), drinks, steals (both from other students and local shops), lies, possibly smokes pot; except for his roommate, Austin (David Potters), the nephew of Headmaster Schmitt, Jim’s made an enemy of every student in the school. Schmitt describes the boy as “the most interesting mess we have this year” and asks English master Alan Hoffman (Robert Sean Leonard, 2001 Tony for The Invention of Love) to befriend him because Hoffman’s so good with the troubled boys. (Does that strike anyone else as ominous foreshadowing—or is it just me?)
I guess it’s no spoiler to say that Jim becomes a thorny problem for Headmaster Schmitt, who comes off as such a liberal-minded educator at that meeting in Keene when he answers Jim’s question about why he’d accept him at Thomas More with his academic record and his expulsion from his previous school. Schmitt explains that he finds something in the boy and thinks he should have a second chance. Now he seems to be looking for justification to expel Jim, whose escapades always leave no evidence even though everyone seems to know who the guilty party is. (My own experience at private schools where the headmaster is also the school’s founder/owner is that court-worthy proof is hardly necessary to expel a troublesome student. It didn’t help me. Wait, did I say that out loud?) Of course, if Schmitt, whose wife, Louise (Annika Boras), who teaches Jim and one other student (whom we never meet) honors English in tutorials at the Schmitt house, is an advocate for Jim, had thrown the boy out at the first—or even second—opportunity, there wouldn’t have been a play. (Hmmm . . . .)
At any rate, Jim survives at each juncture by swearing firmly that he didn’t do whatever he’s suspected of until just before graduation when he’s accused of having gotten drunk the night before a final exam for Schmitt’s religion class, causing him to miss the test because he was . . . er, sick. The inquisition into this allegation goes on for several days during which he has a counseling session with Hoffman. (Hoffman says he believes Jim’s denial of the drinking, but when the boy confesses, his teacher blurts out that he had figured that. Really? Is Hoffman a liar? A vacillator? Forgetful? Has Shanley forgotten what his character’s said earlier?) In the course of the session, Shanley reveals that Hoffman and Schmitt both have buried secrets, each hinted at once in an earlier scene (as if to justify the subsequent revelation) but dropped in here like little bombs, having only the slightest repercussion on the play’s dénouement but reverberating in the background as if to make the two teachers—and, by implication, Louise Schmitt—seem more complex.
At one point, Hoffman suddenly reaches out and places his palm on Jim’s scalp in the most awkward bit of blocking I’ve seen in a long time. (I whispered to myself, ‘Phrenology?’) That gesture becomes an even more awkward feeling of Jim’s face, at which point Jim jumps up and shouts, “What are you doing!” (Not an inapt question under the circumstances.) Now, I know what was supposed to be going on—but this bit of physicalization Shanley devised (the playwright also directed the MTC production) was just plain weird. That’s not even considering that it came out of nowhere (aside from the ominous hint back in the earlier scene). I mean, who does that—feel someone’s scalp and then his face? That’s not a pass, is it? Maybe Hoffman was channeling Annie Sullivan!
I guess it goes without saying that Jim survives the inquiry and Schmitt’s self-examination and graduates. We don’t see that because the last scene in the play, which starts off as a final showdown in the headmaster’s office the day before graduation, turns into a series of soliloquies by each of the characters recounting their futures. It wraps up the plot, but it hardly concludes the drama. Why does Schmitt let Jim off after he confesses to breaking Thomas More’s zero-tolerance no-drinking rule? Why is Jim so angry? It’s more than the fact that he comes from the Bronx, but we never learn what his trouble is. What does Louise Schmitt (whom Shanley especially mentions in his author’s note) find in this difficult teenager? We have to take it on faith that she sees something, but we’re not allowed to learn what.
Schmitt tells Jim that he founded Thomas More because he wants to create “extraordinary young men.” Beside being a little arrogant, are we supposed to then assume that Jim Quinn, AKA John Patrick Shanley, became one? Maybe I’m alone in feeling that writing an autobiographical play in which you declare yourself extraordinary—we don’t see it; we’re simply left to believe it—takes a large portion of chutzpah. (Okay, maybe that’s not the most apt word to use for a play in which all the characters are Catholic. Hubris just seems so . . . tragically Greek.)
I guess you got that I have huge reservations about this play. (ROTters may already know that I’m not Shanley’s biggest fan. I think I made that clear in my report on Storefront Church, posted on 16 June 2012. I didn’t see Doubt on stage, but I found the 2008 film pat and contrived. Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, which I saw in Washington in 1985, also struck me as set up and artificial.) There wasn’t one thing that went on on the MTC stage that Friday night that I believed for an instant. I’ll accept Shanley’s word that the events in the play are real—at least as far as he can recall half a century back—but that “making a point” business he allowed himself to justify some alteration must have done him in. Even the acting was unconvincing, a fault I lay directly at the feet of Shanley since he directed the cast—and I’m sure these actors are all capable of much better (especially Leonard, whom I’ve seen before to much greater advantage).
I’m not sure what could have been made of the situation Shanley lays out in Prodigal Son; true or not, it’s such a cliché I despair that any dramatist could have come up with a truly engaging script. Furthermore, despite the highfalutin language Shanley puts in the mouths of his characters—especially Jim Quinn, who speaks more like a 30-year-old grad student (and a pretentious one at that) than a teenage prep-schooler—he never gets beneath the superficial and obvious to let us in on what’s extraordinary about them. Mr. and Mrs. Schmitt, Hoffman, and Austin are all ciphers about whom we learn almost nothing, and Jim’s little more than a mouthpiece for some empty verbiage from Shanley, what he would like to imagine now at 65 he ought to have said back when he was 16 or 17. But the language aside, Shanley never shows us what his characters, these people the author tells us were the making of him, are capable of—he just tells us. Shanley even has one character say of the dramatist’s younger self: “You have a remarkable mind”; I’m unconvinced.
As director, Shanley fares no better than he does as author. I’ve voiced my problems with playwrights who direct their own work before, and the MTC staging of Prodigal Son fits perfectly into that category. Shanley paid more attention to the words the actors are saying—that is, what he wrote—than he did to any believable characterization. If his cast weren’t as talented as they are, the production would look like soap-opera acting at best. Every character falls into the cliché or stereotype for his or her role. (It’s coincidental that in his 1985 review of Deep Blue Sea in the Washington Post, David Richards wrote that “it is possible to believe the actors on a stage and not believe the play in which they’re appearing.” In the case of Prodigal Son, however, I didn’t believe either. In fact, I didn’t believe the actors believed it themselves.)
Just as I’m doubtful any director could have saved Prodigal Son from being unconvincing as drama, I’m also uncertain any actors could have made these puppet figures more believable. The situations they’re in and the lines they have to say subvert any real chance at verisimilitude as far as I can see. Shanley hasn’t given them an opportunity to redeem their roles. No one fares any better than anyone else, but a great deal of attention has been paid to Chalamet as Jim. Ben Brantley in the New York Times, for instance, says Chalamet has “enough easy charisma to confirm his status as a rising star.” I barely remember his appearance on Showtime’s Homeland in 2012 and I never saw his other performances (Interstellar, 2014), but I found his work here unimpressive and unoriginal, using all the hackneyed behavior of every troubled, volatile teen since J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in 1951’s Catcher in the Rye and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). If this 20-year-old actor is anywhere near as promising as his reviews suggest, then I have to blame director Shanley once again for sabotaging his performance at MTC. (I’ve already mentioned the peculiarity of Leonard’s portrayal of the English master, Alan Hoffman. It’s ironic that Leonard came to prominence playing another troubled student at an exclusive boys’ school in 1989’s Dead Poets Society. I recall that being a poignant and daring performance.)
The technical production was fine, though given what I think of the whole megillah its kind of expensive gift wrap for a middling present. Santo Loquasto’s fragmentary set, with sliding panels for walls and platforms for floors of different rooms, is swaddled in the branches of a copse of birches, lending the set the feel of a New England countryside. The schoolhouse is a small, dollhouse-sized model way upstage, like a painting by James Kinkaid (if he painted large mansions instead of little cottages); the warm, yellow lights glow invitingly, despite the turmoil that we know goes on inside. This is all washed appropriately by Natasha Katz’s mood-setting lighting, casting shadows over some scenes from the tree branches as if they were some kind of watchful spirit. Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s late-’60s clothing, though unspectacular (it is a Catholic school, after all—no hippies or bohos here) was suitably unobtrusive. Paul Simon (of Simon & Garfunkel back in the play’s period) provided music that, while unremarkable, set a nice atmosphere for the goings-on.
The press coverage was less harsh than my assessment, but generally put more store in the production and performances than in the script. Elisabeth Vincentelli virtually dismissed Prodigal Son in the New York Post under a sub-head of “Skip It”: “‘Prodigal Son,’ is . . . vague. . . . [E]verything about it is generic, from the by-the-numbers bad-boy rebellion to the young protagonist’s . . . poetic aspirations to the teacher with a secret . . . . ‘Prodigal Son’ flirts with big themes—religion, sexuality, feminism, literature—but never ventures beyond a light make-out session.” With a “Bottom Line” slug that included the characterization “bizarre vanity from Shanley,” Newsday’s Linda Winer opened her notice by stating, “Without identifying the 90-minute memory play as autobiographical, we could have been left to ourselves to fall in love, or not, with the troubled but brilliant 15-year-old protagonist from the Bronx and not have to deal with Shanley’s admiration for his fascinating, handsome, poetic young self.” Winer praised Chalamet as a “gifted actor [who] is giving a breakout performance” and affirmed that Leonard is “so good . . . that we wince at the cliché Shanley’s memory forces him to become.” She even asserted that Shanley “ably directs” the production.
In the New York Times, Brantley characterized Shanley’s “painful” play, “a hymn to the impossible, combustible and brilliant young thing he once was,” as “the sound of a raw adolescent ego screaming for attention.” Brantley applauds the playwright for not just recalling his teens “so vividly that he hasn’t just written about it; he has also rendered it as if . . . he were still writhing in the stinging throes of his midteens.” The play’s “inescapably all about Jim” even though the other characters “are given problems and secrets of their own,” but the playwright “deals rather perfunctorily and inconsistently” with them. A “subtle probing of mixed motives and shaky certainty . . . is seldom in evidence” in Prodigal Son, observed Brantley. In the end, the Timesman pivoted and lamented that “the man that Jim would become seemingly has yet to achieve the distance to make this struggling artist-in-the-making worthy of a play of his own.” Matt Windman, in amNew York, described Prodigal Son as “raw and choppy, with long gaps in time between some scenes, meandering discussions of philosophy and a heavy reliance on direct narration.” Windman added, “At times, it resembles a heavy-handed takeoff of ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’” though in the end, “it is an engaging and candid coming-of-age piece.”
The New York Daily News’s Joe Dziemianowicz, calling the Prodigal Son a “satisfying play,” noted, “Over an hour-and-a-half, themes that have occupied Shanley as an adult are seen emerging here.” Dziemianowicz felt that Shanley’s direction “skillfully guides” the cast, whom the Newsman praised with special mentions for Chalamet and Leonard, though he had some reservations about the physical production. In the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout stated simply, “Finely directed by the author himself and exceptionally well acted by a five-person cast led by Timothée Chalamet, ‘Prodigal Son’ is a heart-sore portrait of adolescent turmoil that bears the stamp of hard-earned truth on every scene.”
In the Village Voice, Miriam Felton-Dansky described Prodigal Son as simultaneously “[h]eartfelt and frequently well observed” and “teeter[ing] between restraint and emotional overload, eventually (and unnecessarily) succumbing to the latter.” Felton-Dansky found that the play’s final development “grows surreal, becoming a kind of stagy séance in which Shanley resurrects the dead so as to bare their long-ago souls.” When Jim learns of Hoffman’s secret and demands details, the teacher refuses to tell the tale. The Voice reviewer commented, “If only he (and Shanley) had meant it.” In the “Goings On About Town” column in the New Yorker, the review-writer admonished that Shanley has painted his younger self “perhaps too admiringly,” though the capsule review dubbed Chalamet’s performance “incandescent.” “But the playwright shouldn’t have directed his own work,” lamented the reviewer, the result of which is that “the pace is often stilted.”
As if reading over my shoulder, Jesse Green of New York magazine warned:
A playwright enters dangerous territory when he attempts to dramatize his struggle to become an artist: a struggle that is supposedly resolved, or at least justified, by the artistry he now puts before us. When the play turns out to be less than thrilling—as was the case, for instance, with A. R. Gurney’s What I Did Last Summer—the disproportion between the setup and the result risks bathos, if not ridiculousnsess.
Green continued that Shanley’s “propinquity to danger,” meaning his tendency to “take dramatic fiction as close to the electrified fence of narcissism as possible without getting electrocuted,” is what “animates and partly defeats Prodigal Son.” “Trying to climb that electrified fence,” continued Green, “has apparently shorted some of Shanley’s circuits.” On one hand, Green wrote, the autobiographical play “displays all of his mature talents for moral inquiry, rich dialogue, and compelling scene-making” and on the other “like its biblical namesake, is also a mopey and vexing testament to the confusions of self-regard.” By the time Prodigal Son nears its end (I don’t say conclusion), Green complained that “the play has reached a murky depth of perplexity from which . . . it can’t seem to find its way back to the surface.” The man from New York expanded on this deficiency:
I don’t even know whom I’m criticizing when I say, in teacherly fashion, that the work is promising but undisciplined; is that Jim’s fault, or Shanley the playwright’s, or Shanley the director’s? (This is one of those cases that confirms the conventional wisdom of not directing one’s own work.) Another intelligence, not so in love with the author’s, might have helped him prune deadwood, focus the narrative, avoid the whirlpools of narcissism, and possibly even eliminate the interstitial narration that too directly pleads for indulgence.
Green’s conclusion is: “It seems that Jim and John [that is, Shanley] both take Thomas More’s example too much to heart, telling too much truth, or what they imagine to be truth, for their own good.”
Entertainment Weekly’s Melissa Rose Bernardo asserted that in Prodigal Son, “Shanley crafts a captivating warts-and-all portrait of not only a budding artist but also an average teenager struggling to find himself.” The play, Bernardo states, “recalls all of our mouthy, insecure teenage meltdowns” and brings “us back—for a brief, but intense, emotion-packed 95-minute trip.” In the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney, calling the play an “unsatisfying new work” and a “wordy text,” characterized it as “an opaque portrait revealing little beyond the author’s romanticized self-image as an embattled hero.” Though “beautifully acted,” Prodigal Son “lacks drama, and Shanley’s solution to that feels forced.” “The writing doesn’t match the elegance of the production,” asserted Rooney, especially in that final revelatory scene, which the HR reviewer called “a mess.” Praising the technical production, especially Loquasto’s set, Katz’s lighting, and Simon’s music, Rooney declared, “The chief reward is the acting.” Time Out New York’s David Cote called Shanley’s play “a keen, passionate portrait of the author as a poetry-spouting romantic punk” and describes it as “pure, splendid Shanley: shaggily idealistic and always scratching a philosophical itch underneath jokes and banter.” Prodigal Son “is lean and cool-headed,” wrote the man from TONY, “but it contains one or two emotional explosions that cast the previous action in a new light.” Shanley directed “with a tender hand” and Loquasto’s set was “spare, efficient.”
In Variety, Marilyn Stasio complained that Shanley “lavishes an inordinate amount of attention” on his stand-in, Jim Quinn, although the writer “has done an excellent job of directing.” Despite the complexity Stasio found in the role of Jim, she felt that “Shanley makes little effort to delve deeper into such a troubled character” which is where she believed the “real but largely unexplored drama lies.”
The on-line press was essentially an echo of the print outlets. David Gordon of TheaterMania, after praising Chalamet’s “true star-is-born performance,” reported that the MTC production, while “still extremely moving,” “hasn't entirely realized its full potential.” Overall, said Gordon, Shanley’s play, “both on page and in production, never completely rises to the level of curiosity we feel about its protagonist,” spending too much of its length on “exposition or . . . mood setting” so that “it doesn’t offer particularly new insights.” On New York Theatre Guide, Margret Echeverria noted that Prodigal Son, which she described as “beautifully crafted,” asks if we “remember fifteen” and decided that “yes, we remember fifteen and, despite that warning, we’re charmed; we come willingly.” BroadwayWorld’s Michael Dale drew a distinction between “coming of age stories where you identify with the awkward struggles of the protagonists and recognize a little of yourself “ and those “where you wish they’d just grow up already.” Prodigal Son, said Dale, “leans a bit towards the latter.” As director, Shanley treats the play “as a soft and sentimental memory,” wrote Dale, and added, “The action is sparse, the tension is mild and the plotting always seems more or less familiar.” Citing the script’s line characterizing Jim Quinn as an “interesting mess,” the BWW reviewer declared that Prodigal Son “is neither interesting . . . nor messy enough to make an impact.”
On Talkin’ Broadway, Matthew Murray described Prodigal Son as a “curiously cursory new play” in which memory “is at once crystalline and cloudy” and in which the playwright “discovers . . . Well, not much, as it turns out.” Acknowledging that the “dual portrait” of Louise Schmitt and Alan Hoffman “is not without merit,” Murray declared that “it’s tough to escape the fact that . . . Jim is not particularly interesting at the head of his own story.” The development, however, in the supporting characters “doesn’t remotely feel like revealing anything.” Shanley’s writing and directing, said Murray, are “formulaic” and it seemed to the TB blogger that the playwright “cares little for connecting” the separate incidents of the play. The reviewer also missed the “crucial character points” that show Jim’s growth: “There’s something frustrating in watching a year pass by in a blink but no discernible change or growth appear in those who ostensibly endured much during that time.” Murray asked, “What are we supposed to take away from this?” “Nothing,” he answered. Murray is the only reviewer I read who had reservations about Chalamet’s performance, finding that the actor “holds his anger too close to the surface, and draws upon it more readily than the other emotions that ought to be writhing inside Jim.” Concluding that the play “doesn’t make for riveting drama,” the TB writer decided that neither the playwright nor his character were “able to convince us that their joint past is a puzzle we are, or should be, desperate to solve” and “like its central figure, Prodigal Son is forever striving to be more and having to settle for less.”
CurtainUp’s Elyse Sommer called Prodigal Son “a compelling, well cast memory piece” which “[w]hile not without humor, . . . is neither light entertainment or a romance.” “Prodigal Son . . . is interesting and likable,” said Steven Suskin of Huffington Post. “It is also uneven.” “After an effective opening,” observed Suskin, the pace slackens until “near the midway point, the pace finally picks up. Shanley gets back on track, and the rest of the evening is markedly more interesting.” The HP writer gave a pretty cogent analysis of how I felt about this theater piece (including my feelings about playwrights who direct their own work):
The overall results are more than workable, but one suspects there’s a considerably stronger play in Prodigal Son than what we see at City Center. The trouble with writing autobiographical plays is that the author can be overly concerned with what actually happened, the way it happened; this sometimes leads to accurate reporting but less-than-scintillating dramaturgy. That’s where the director comes in. It could well be that Prodigal Son would benefit from the prodding of a director other than the autobiographical playwright, who might be too rigidly staging the events just like they were lodged in memory—and rejecting cuts that would strengthen.
Most writers, dramatists included, use bits of their lives, families, backgrounds, and hometowns as grist for their writing. Tennessee Williams did it all the time; Neil Simon did it a lot. A. R. Gurney, David Henry Hwang, and Richard Nelson do it in almost every play, and Shanley has done it in Doubt, Defiance, and Storefront Church. But the plots and characters, though drawn from real life, are fiction—some more than others, granted. When the playwright needs to make a dramatic point, she doesn’t have to shoehorn it into a factual sequence, throwing everything out of balance. In a fictional play, the writer is free move bits around and even cut them with impunity. (Unless, of course, the writer is one of those who have trouble cutting anything they’ve composed. Then he needs an editor or a dramaturg to help him be ruthless. “Kill your babies,” one of my teachers admonished us.) It’s ten times harder to do when the details are true and the subject is the writer’s life. If it happened, the writer feels, it has to be in the play. A couple of the reviewers of Prodigal Son thought that Shanley had fallen into that rabbit hole.