Monday, March 14, 2016

Off-Broadway Theater Review: Prodigal Son TOP PICK

Biographical Play is One of Shanley’s Finest
By Lauren Yarger
John Patrick Shanley’s latest play, Prodigal Son, getting its world premiere by Manhattan Theatre Club Off-Broadway, might just be his most personal yet – and not just because he is the writer and director.

This story (from the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Doubt) is an autobiographical story of his time in the mid 1960s at Thomas More, a private prep school in New Hampshire. It was a period of time when the direction of his life was being decided, Shanley writes in program notes. Prodigal Son is the journey of a tough, troubled, but gifted young kid from the Bronx, who is given a scholarship to mix in with the nation’s elite (with only a few tweaks to true events for simplicity’s or clarity’s sake, Shanley writes.

Talented newcomer Timothée Chalamet (TV’s “Homeland” and Hollywood’s “Interstellar”) plays Shanley’s younger self, Jim Quinn. Original, haunting music by Paul Simon (yes, of Beatles fame) and exquisite, nomination-worthy lighting by Natasha Katz, help visualize the feelings of a boy out of his element and trying to cope with the “special, beautiful room in hell” that is age 15.

Though suspended from his previous school for saying he didn’t believe in God, Thomas More’s religious instructor and headmaster, Carl Schmitt (Chris McGarry), sees potential in the boy and gives him a chance.

“He’s the most interesting mess we have this year,” Schmitt tells his anti-war head of the English Department Alan Hoffman (Robert Sean Leonard). He’s so unlike the other upper-crust boy,  like roommate Austin (David Potters), at the Catholic school.

Jesus, like Socrates and even the school’s namesake, Thomas More, all were suicides, Quinn, surmises, because they allowed their persecutors to kill them when they could have taken action to stop their deaths.

Hoffman is amused by the boy’s mind and the philosophical discussions they share, but cautions Quinn about expressing his views to Schmitt -- who continues to make a case for Christ’s divinity. He especially discourages Quinn from sharing the thought that he might like to attend the headmaster’s alma mater, Harvard, and encourages him to shoot for NYU instead.

Quinn isn’t quite sure what to do. He continues his rebellious ways breaking rules and testing boundaries, but when he gets in trouble, it is Schmitt’s wife, Louise (Annika Boras) who comes to the rescue. She has been instructing the boy in her advanced English class and also sees something in him – perhaps a glimpse of the son she and Carl lost.

Hoffman is the one who reaches Quinn, whose prolific essays about Hitler are a source of consternation as well as amusement.

Mr. Hoffman, finally SAW me. And more than that. Somebody, a grown person, decided I was good before I was good,” Quinn, who sort of narrates the tale, says.

Over the course of years, the struggle for Quinn’s true calling, as it were, become more intense with both Hoffman and Schmitt trying to influence him. Will his passionate soul find light and be able to soar or will he give into loneliness and the darkness of despair that will crush him? Revelations about Hoffman and his motivations make the question about whom to trust even more intense.

Though story is from Quinn’s viewpoint, and told in the retrospect of adult memory, so the other characters here don’t develop much beyond what he would have known as the young boy. This is a brave piece of writing, as many lesser playwrights might have been tempted to try to round out the characters, to reveal a whole lot more about them, to make them more interesting. In keeping them contained – except for the Schmitts, who briefly reveal some of how their relationship is affected by the death of their son -- Prodigal Son truly becomes a memory of how things were for this one boy and the choices that made him who he is today.

Set Designer Santo Loquasto’s images of interiors of Thomas More as well as the school in the distance assist in the storytelling, into which Shanley paints pictures of faith, forgiveness, free will and choices that can make or break a life. And he does it all in a compelling 95 minutes without intermission.

Prodigal Son plays through March 27 at NY City Center I, 131 W. 55th St., NYC. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 7 pm; Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8 pm; select matineesTickets $; (212) 581-1212.

Credits: Written and Directed by John Patrick ShanleyScenic Design by Santo Loquasto, Costume Design by Jennifer Von Mayrhauser, Lighting Design by Natasha Katz, Sound design by Fitz Patton, Original Music by Paul Simon, dialect Coaching by Charlotte Fleck.

Family-Friendly Factors:
-- Language
-- God's name taken in vain
-- Grace is said before meal

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. and the Episcopal Actors' Guild.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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