Many fine American plays have come along in recent years, but it’s hard to think of any that matched the dramatic punch, economy of form and popular appeal of John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” which won the 2005 Pulitzer for Drama, had a successful Broadway run and was made into an Oscar-nominated film version with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Alas, Shanley hasn’t enjoyed much success since then. Except for the slight Irish romance “Outside Mullingar,” his new plays since “Doubt” have been duds.
In “Prodigal Son,” Shanley’s newest work, the playwright invokes many of the elements found in “Doubt” (the Bronx, the 1960s, Catholicism, school teachers) but in a directly autobiographical way.
Shanley is depicted as a restless, working-class teenager attending a New Hampshire boarding school on scholarship. A bright critical thinker, his personal habits (getting drunk, stealing books and records, questioning Catholic dogma) culminate in a showdown with the principal as to whether he should be permitted to graduate.
The 95-minute drama is raw and choppy, with long gaps in time between some scenes, meandering discussions of philosophy and a heavy reliance on direct narration. At times, it resembles a heavy-handed takeoff of “The Catcher in the Rye.”
But on the whole, it is an engaging and candid coming-of-age piece, in which Shanley reflects upon and makes peace with his younger self and the complicated adults around him. There is also an air of mystery to many of the interactions and character motivations.
The off-Broadway production (produced by Manhattan Theatre Club and directed by Shanley) is built around a hyperactive and emotional performance from Timothée Chalamet (“Homeland”) as the young Shanley, which is contrasted with shaded performances from Chris McGarry and Robert Sean Leonard as well-meaning but struggling faculty members.
If you go
“Prodigal Son” plays at City Center Stage I through March 27. 131 W. 55th St., manhattantheatreclub.com.