Credit: Joan Marcus

As soon as Jim Quinn (Homeland’s Timothée Chalamet) lumbers on stage in Prodigal Son, we know he’s trouble. Even before we learn he told his religion teacher he didn’t believe in God “to see what he’d do,” before we see him swigging from a bottle of apricot schnapps, before he attacks his well-meaning nerdy roommate (David Potters), we can see it: Defiance radiates from every inch of his wiry teenage frame. Though he’s been coaxed into a jacket and tie, his hair awkwardly slicked into submission, he’s clearly out of his element — and not simply because he’s a streetwise kid from the Bronx bound for boarding school in rural New Hampshire.

It’s always the troublemakers who make for the best stories (The Catcher in the Rye, anyone?), and Prodigal Son — John Patrick Shanley’s account of his own rocky but formative pre-college years — is no exception. Collaborating again with Off Broadway’s Manhattan Theatre Club, Shanley crafts a captivating warts-and-all portrait of not only a budding artist but also an average teenager struggling to find himself. Jim might be difficult, but he’s also endlessly curious, imaginative, and insanely bright. (What 15-year-old idolizes the hero of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám? What teenager even knows The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám?) He quotes “Invictus” in casual conversation; he’s obsessed with changing his name to something exotic like Rafael Sabatini; he wants to “write poems like Walt Whitman just…naming everything.” He also drinks, commits petty theft, and beats up underclassmen.

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We know things turned out pretty well for Jim’s alter ego: As a writer, Shanley went on to win an Oscar for scripting 1987’s Moonstruck, plus a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for his 2004 drama Doubt. Nevertheless, there’s still tension aplenty in Prodigal Son. Even as Jim finds advocates and intellectual sparring partners in two of his teachers (Annika Boras and Robert Sean Leonard, the latter in an especially thankless role), he locks horns repeatedly with the headmaster (Chris McGarry): “Why do I have to listen to you when you have zero to say? Because I’m young?” Jim spits at him. “I’ve never even gotten to find out who I am and you want me to change? That’s crazy!”

With speeches like that, Shanley recalls all of our mouthy, insecure teenage meltdowns. Even if you’re not prep-school-educated, or don’t know Phaedo from Phaedrus, we all spent at least a few angst-ridden months (or maybe longer), like Jim, in “a special, beautiful room in hell.” Thankfully, we have writers like Shanley to bring us back — for a brief, but intense, emotion-packed 95-minute trip. A-

Prodigal Son
  • TV Show
  • 2
  • Tuesdays at 09:00 PM