The Return of the Prodigal

  • Date:
    June 1, 2007
    Review by:
    Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus

    Review by Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus

    In Balanchine's exquisite ballet, "The Prodigal Son," the errant young man, beaten and contrite, crawls home and waits outside the gates of his father's house, trying to get the courage to ask forgiveness and be allowed to return.

    The father, a giant biblical patriarch, is a powerful man who stands over his prostrate son like a wall of granite, refusing even to look at him. But when the young man grabs onto his father's robe and pulls himself up, the old man softens, lifts him with his arms as he throws his cape around the boy's battered body, and carries him into the house.

    It is an electric moment, and when performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov, a dancer who can convey a complexity of emotions with a single move of his body, we are paralyzed by the momentous scene. A similar welcome was not in store for Eustace, however, the ne'er-do-well son in St. John Hankin's 1905 play, "The Return of the Prodigal," now having a successful run at off-Broadway's Mint Theater Company.

    Eustace is discovered in ragged clothes lying on the ground in the pouring rain outside his family's luxurious home, and is half-carried, half-dragged in though not by a forgiving father. Lying half-dead on the couch, he looks so frail, so beaten -- until everyone runs out looking for "salts," and an energetic Eustace gets up to finish the dregs of a brandy snifter.

    This is the first glimpse we get that the 29-year-old Eustace is a young man with few scruples, flimsy ethics, and a shredded sense of responsibility. His father, Samuel, who finally makes an appearance, and played eloquently by old favorite, Richard Kline, is not pleased to see him. There's no tenderness or understanding in his cold-cash heart.

    He had exiled this younger son to Australia with a goodly English sum of money, and a promise to make something of himself, only to have him dramatically return five years later with nothing more than a plan to sponge off his family till he departs from this world. His ditzy and devoted mother, played by the effervescent Tandy Cronyn (daughter of Jessica and Hume) doesn't care just so long as she has her boy back.

    We really want to dislike this bad boy, but he has spunk, sass, intelligence, and surprisingly, a well-developed social conscience. However, he's absolutely blind to these attributes, in part because of an overbearing father who's told him all his life that he's just nothing next to Henry, his stuffy but responsible older brother.

    Though "Prodigal" has many comic moments, particularly when the family friend, the pompous Lady Faringford is holding forth on the importance of privilege and place in society, but the humor doesn't distract us from the wasted life of Eustace. Hankin then compounds the sadness of this situation in a subplot that gives us insight into the hopeless life of women in such a society if they don't marry well, or at all.

    Think what a hoot it would be (at least to audiences) if Hankin had written Eustace so that he stood for Parliament as a Labor candidate opposite his Conservative father who's expected to be a shoe-in for office. That well-developed social conscience could actually be put to some productive use.

    Instead we see Eustace accept what he considers to be an unalterable fate -- that of a failure. For all of us who have ever found ourselves without a plan, or without a vision for their future, this play is "timeless and timely," as Director Jonathan Bank has stated. It's well worth the trip to New York not just because it's drama at its best, but because -- as theatre should be -- it makes us think.

    Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus

    What the press had to say.....

    JASON ZINOMAN of THE NEW YORK TIMES: �A coolly enthralling play about a timeless subject: failure."

    FRANK SCHECK of THe NEW YORK POST: "This incisive comedy/drama by little-known British playwright St. John Hankin arrives courtesy of the invaluable Mint Theater, which has yet again unearthed a compelling vintage work."

    MICHAEL SOMMERS of STAR-LEDGER: "Light in texture but sharp in observance, the century-old comedy may not be entirely fresh these days, but it's certainly tasty."

    JOY GOODWIN of the NEW YORK SUN: "It's not a black comedy, exactly � it veers too far into drama for that. But neither is it persuasive as a straight drama; it seeks too brazenly to score laughs." & "In his (Director - Jonathan Bank) eagerness to remove the play from its time period, Mr. Banks has inadvertently stripped away its context. What remains is a fairly sterile environment"

    JUDD HOLLANDER of EPOCH TIMES "At what point do parents stop taking responsibility for their children and what happens to those who can't ever stand on their own two feet? These questions are explored in St. John Hankin's 1905 play The Return of the Prodigal, a work which is topical, thought-provoking, and brilliantly played.

    MARILYN STASIO of VARIETY: "Jonathan Bank's misguided modern-dress update of this 1905 period piece -- about a wastrel son who returns home to shame his materialistic mercantile family -- doesn't make Hankin's ideas any more relevant for our time. But it does manage to make the characters look like idiots just for being true to their own times."

    External links to full reviews from newspapers

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