John Patrick Shanley’s Prodigal Son is exactly the kind of play that makes us love the theater: a beautifully written, directed, and acted work about believable people we can respect, in realistic situations that entertain and educate us about ourselves and others. Prodigal Son, which Shanley both wrote and directs, is the culmination of his unofficial autobiographical trilogy, which began with 1991’s Beggars in the House of Plenty and continued with 2004’s Doubt: A Parable; all three have been first presented by Manhattan Theatre Club. In this world premiere, which opened last night at City Center, Timothée Chalamet stars as Jim Quinn, a bright but confused adolescent from the Bronx who is off to the Thomas More Preparatory School in New Hampshire after having problems at previous educational institutions. “Do you remember fifteen? For me, it was a special, beautiful room in hell,” he tells the audience at the start. The school’s founder and director, Carl Schmitt (Chris McGarry), a devout Catholic, decides to take a chance on the tough-talking, working-class Jim. “We don’t have another boy like him,” he explains to Alan Hoffman (Robert Sean Leonard), the head of the English department who becomes a mentor to Jim. A lonely kid obsessed with poetry, Nazis, and defending and supporting his older brother who is a soldier in Vietnam (the play takes place from 1965 to 1968), Jim gets into fights with fellow students, steals odd objects, drinks apricot brandy, and breaks other rules that should get him expelled, but Mr. Schmitt sticks with him. “He’s the most interesting mess we have this year,” he says to Mr. Hoffman. But as much trouble as he is, Jim is also an extremely clever young dreamer with fascinating insight into life. “It’s a prison to think things are impossible,” he says to his math-nerd roommate, Austin Lord Schmitt (David Potters), Mr. Schmitt’s nephew. Later, meeting with Louise Schmitt (Annika Boras), Mr. Schmitt’s wife and an English teacher at the school, Jim says, “People are born somebody. They don’t choose who they are. I was born me. I don’t get to be somebody else, even if I want to be someone else.” “Do you want to be somebody else?” Mrs. Schmitt asks. “What’s it matter? I can’t be,” he responds. “I’m Jim Quinn. I was born Jim Quinn and I’ll die Jim Quinn.” It all comes to a head as graduation nears and Jim’s immediate future is very much in doubt.
Prodigal Son is a deeply personal story, based on Shanley’s real experiences at the real Thomas More school, which was founded and run by the real Mr. Schmitt. (In fact, a special preview of the play was recently held for current and former students and faculty members.) It’s no surprise that the show is highly literate, with discussions of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” Plato and Socrates, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Sigmund Freud, and T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” that avoid getting overly pedantic. The five characters are extremely well drawn, avoiding genre stereotypes while including several shocking plot twists. Chalamet (Homeland, Interstellar), a graduate of the LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts and who was born and raised in Hell’s Kitchen, is a whirlwind as Jim, gesticulating wildly — much of which was inspired by Shanley’s (Moonstruck, Outside Mullingar) own proclivities — and approaching the world with eyes wide open, hopeful for the possibilities it offers while worried he might never find his place in it. McGarry, who has previously appeared in Shanley’s Doubt, Defiance, Dirty Story, and Where’s My Money?, is steadfast as Mr. Schmitt, a God-fearing man whose convictions are severely tested by Jim. Boras (Chair, The Broken Heart) is radiant as Mrs. Schmitt, a bright and charming woman who is much more than a mere appendage of her husband; her involvement with Jim is critical to his potential success. Santo Loquasto’s engaging set includes a miniature version of the school in the back and bare trees on the sides that move as various rooms slide in and off the stage; the interstitial music is by Paul Simon, with lighting by Natasha Katz. But at the center of it all is the Tony-, Pulitzer-, and Oscar-winning Shanley himself, finally sharing a story he’s wanted to tell for decades. “I wish you could have been there,” Shanley writes in a program note. After experiencing Prodigal Son, you’ll feel like you were.