There’s a philosophy that suggests a dramatist’s worst subject is himself because he has neither the historical perspective nor the objectivity to represent himself accurately, honestly or—and this to me is the most important—fully. This isn’t to say the character is always unengaging, nor even that such a memory play can’t be notable—and there’s a much larger essay on that subject I won’t sidebar into here—but not for nothing is the most enigmatic character in The Glass Menagerie Tom. The balance tends to be tipped based on how the author stand-in functions. If he’s primarily remembering others, the influence and impact they had on him, throwing the spotlight on someone else as the motivating or central force, the degree to which he’s a cipher need not matter much, because in a way, he stands in for us too, observing people more extraordinary than he. But if the author himself is the main character—
Well, you take refuge in his being very talented, if he is, and fortunately, John Patrick Shanley is that, in spades, which doesn’t exactly solve the problem, but camouflages it. Somewhat.
It’s the story (the dramatized memory) of the problem teen he was in the Bronx (Timothée Chalamet), prone to fights and fractiousness, given a second chance (with scholarship) at a preparatory school in New Hampshire, whose founder and head (Carl Schmidt) senses what’s extraordinary about him; and subsequently puts him in the charge of an English teacher who’s good with problem boys (Robert Sean Leonard). Because these three, as a central triumvirate, represent interesting-if-familiar tropes—the “special” punk, the strict-but-compassionate-boss, the insightful, unconventional teacher-slash-friend—and because Shanley presents them with colorful personalities and witty enough dialogue, Prodigal Son is never a dull ride. But it’s not a very illuminating one. We’re told of the student’s behavioral difficulties, but get almost no glimpse of them—it’s all discussed (or argued) after the fact of any incident, and the novelty of a highly literate and well-read kid being able to passionately argue his nuanced point of view in a street-patois worthy of Leo Gorcey is only a surprise the first time; we know he self-educates; now what? Nor are the teachers ultimately knowable; though secret facets of them are similarly revealed, the secrets don’t make us view them in a new or broader context—indeed the English teacher’s secret, revealed so late in the game as to seem gratuitous, violates our established impression of him, such that you almost take it personally. (I believe it’s Shanley’s deliberate attempt at having the audience experience the affront vicariously, but it backfires; and I’m finding myself unable to explain why without spoilers. Suffice it to say, you spend the evening with a loyal dog, admirably and sincerely behaving as such a dog should behave, and then at the last minute, the dog turns out to be a pig with his own shaded agenda. Are we indeed, retroactively, to think less of the man’s stage time as a dog, which is how we experienced him? Because what we think instead, what I thought, anyway, was that the playwright, not the dog, lied to us.)
But then, that odd imbalance is symptomatic of the whole author-as-hero, lack-of-perspective thing. If we’re supposed to grok everything from his point of view only, why are there scenes featuring the other characters by themselves? There’s lots of theatrical precedent for a play guided by a participant-narrator to include scenes he never witnessed, but if that kind of omniscience is part of your permissions-package, shock revelation that denies omniscience, combined with keeping offstage almost all the mischief that gets the hero in trouble to begin with, can become problematic.
Not, as I say, so problematic that you can’t sit back and enjoy. It paced fleetly and the actors are terrific (Shanley also directed). But when it’s over, what lingers is a sense of a vision only partially fulfilled.
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