What if Holden Caulfield weren’t kicked out of prep school? What if, moreover, he were taken almost entirely seriously by the adults around him? That is, essentially, the sort of scenario envisioned in John Patrick Shanley’s Prodigal Son.
The Caulfield character, in this case, is Jim Quinn (a masterly Timothée Chalamet), the precocious yet painfully insecure product of a blue-collar family from the Bronx who manages to wrangle a scholarship to a Catholic New Hampshire boarding school. As prone to quote poetry and wax romantic about the human condition as he is to beat up fellow students, steal and get drunk, Quinn is a challenge, and a curiosity, for his teacher Alan Hoffman (Robert Sean Leonard) and principal Carl Schmitt (Chris McGarry). When they’re not threatening or punishing their problematic star student, they’re inflating his already massive but fragile ego. His allure, it seems, is undeniable. “He’s the most interesting mess we have this year,” Schmitt tells Hoffman.
In the annals of fictional prep schools, from A Separate Peace’s Devon to Dead Poets Society’s Welton Academy — of which Leonard, coincidentally, is an alum — interesting messes are a staple. They usually don’t fare well, if, indeed, survive at all. Quinn, on the other hand, seems to emerge virtually unscathed from the tumult of these formative years, buoyed by the fact that Schmitt and Hoffman, however begrudgingly, yield to him — spellbound, apparently, by the power of his profound but boyish intellect.
Nonetheless, as the years go by in the school’s stately, wood-furnished classrooms, bedrooms and offices, the men, along with Schmitt’s wife, Louise (Annika Boras), struggle to rein Quinn in, even as he commits ever larger acts of rebellion. But their spats, though smartly rendered and directed by Shanley, tend to serve primarily to make room for Quinn to practice mental gymnastics on topics as diverse as religion, literature and philosophy, and tempestuously air his grapplings with authority, human nature and his own future. Clever as he is, Quinn’s great pronouncements, ultimately, are not so unusual; the seriousness with which the adults entertain them, however, is extraordinary. “You have the most remarkable mind. It’s a little scary,” Hoffman says, with no discernible irony, after Quinn histrionically declares he’s “always facing the Nazis.”
In this memory play of sorts, the grown Quinn is allowed occasionally to step out of the action and remark on the drama. The distance, one might imagine, would allow him to see his own naivety. No such luck. The adult Quinn seems to be as reverent of his teenage self as his teachers, offering, in between fond remembrances, the vaguest of reflections: “I was fifteen. Do you remember fifteen?” A rare bit of insight, which bookends the play, is that he considers this period in his life “a special, beautiful room in hell.” Prodigal Son succeeds in evoking the beauty and the hell of the young man’s coming-of-age, but a few more steps back could better put its specialness into perspective.
Prodigal Son is on until 27th March 2016. Click here for tickets.