Absence makes the heart grow fonder in Prodigal Son, John Patrick Shanley’s misty-eyed memory play that is currently in performances at City Center’s Stage II. Also directed by Shanley, the autobiographical drama follows Jim Quinn (played by the gifted young actor Timothée Chalamet), a troubled teenager from the Bronx who, after being expelled from many schools, finds himself the recipient of a scholarship to attend Thomas More Preparatory School, a private Roman Catholic institution in New Hampshire. He has caught the attention of the school’s headmaster, Carl Schmitt (Chris McGarry), who advises the English teacher Alan Hoffman (Robert Sean Leonard, doing what he can with a troubled and troubling role) to help the hyper-energetic young man.
We watch Quinn stumble his way through two years at Thomas More, where his obsession with poetry grows, as well as a disturbing fixation on the Nazis, and he compulsively breaks the school rules by drinking in the dorms and stealing from his classmates. Shanley described himself during that time of his life as “rather violent, a bit delusional, hungry for all kinds of things, and wild-eyed as a rescue dog,” and Chalamet winningly portrays all of those emotions and then some, inviting audiences and his roommate Austin (an excellent and underused David Potters), to witness and sympathize with his restless energy and determination to achieve some kind of vague, unnamed greatness.
While Prodigal Son does have the potential to be a particularly moving play, its storytelling stumbles, failing to effectively develop some of the seemingly random plot points introduced. Especially troubling is the presentation of Hoffman’s affection for Quinn, which is not platonic or legal, and Quinn realizes quickly he is not the first student Hoffman has attempted to be physical with. (A passing reference is made to another student leaving the school due to the same reasons.)
We are also introduced to Carl’s wife, Louise (Annika Boras, doing her best to play a stereotype of a mid-century saintly woman), and a subplot involving a family tragedy that may – or may not – explain Carl’s interest in Quinn. But any possible explanation for this part of the plot is not executed fully and audiences are left wondering why – or even if – this conflict is resolved. (An odd scene involving what seems to be a time warp is staged at the end, revealing much but not explaining anything.)
While Chalamet’s performance is indeed impressive, the heavy mist surrounding Santo Loquasto’s woodsy set is too heavily perfumed with memory and idealism to present any conflict or plot that is actually compelling.