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''The Prodigal Son''
''The Prodigal Son''
Directed by Jonathan Bank
Mint Theater Company
311 W. 43rd St. 3rd Fl., between 8th and 9th avenues
Opened May 23, 2007
Tues., Wed. & Thurs 7 p.m., Fri. & Sat 8 p.m., matinees Sat. & Sun. 2 p.m.
$55 (212) 315-0231 or www.minttheater.org
Closes July 1, 2007
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons June 9, 2007
St. John Hankin's ''The Prodigal Son,'' written in 1905 and since forgotten, was an obvious choice for Mint Theater Company, which is committed to ''brining new vitality to neglected plays.'' But it is doubtful the decision-makers at the Mint had any idea that the current escapades of heiress Paris Hilton would make the play so timely.
In ''The Prodigal Son,'' the ne'er-do-well younger son, Eustace (think useless) Jackson (Roderick Hill, in a role he effortlessly slinks into) appears, ragged and apparently unconscious, on the doorstep of his parents' home just when ''the governor,'' Samuel Jackson (Richard Kline), is standing for parliament and Eustace's older brother, Henry (Bradford Cover), is about to ask for the hand of Stella Faringford (Margot White), the daughter of the aristocratic but impoverished Sir John and Lady Faringford (Lee Moore and the imperial and impressive Kate Levy).
Eustace plays on the sympathy of his dotty mother (Tandy Cronyn), the affection of his sister, Violet (Leah Curney) and the self-serving narcissism of the local physician, Dr. Glaisher (W. Alan Nebelthau) to install himself in the household as a pampered invalid. But he can't fool his avaricious and conniving father and older brother, who insist that he do something his temperament and training render impossible, i.e., work.
Eustace is left with no other choice but to use his own wiles to exploit his brother and father's weakness (social snobbery and their desire for advancement) to get what he wants. St John Hankin's clever and concise dialogue and Jonathan Bank's skilled direction make the ensuing familial battle intriguing and delightful.
In his notes, Bank says that he and his designers (set designer Crag Napoliello and costume designer, Hwi-Won Lee) ''are striving to make the play look and feel as fresh as it seemed when each of us read it (without necessarily ‘relocating' the play to a specific time or place which presents its own distractions.)'' Bank says he cut out lines referring to the recent addition of electricity to the Jackson textile mills, as well as to carriages and lanterns. The play is performed without a British accent.
There is no one, however, who would mistake ''The Prodigal Son'' for anything but a British play written during the early years of the 20th century. This is not only because of the references to parliament or the fact that Eustace had been packed off to Australia (the colonies were a great place to send reprobate sons), or even the use of titles like ''Lady'' and ''Sir.'' It is simply that the fixation on ''position,'' so nicely elucidated by Lady Faringford (''It's all we have left and we use it to our advantage so we don't have to do something useful, like other people'') is as British as the Queen.
If the British have made a fetish of position, they have also made a national pastime of destroying the pretensions of position, very often on stage. It is into this class of plays that ''The Prodigal Son'' squarely falls.
But unlike lesser plays of this genre, ''The Prodigal Son condemns the idle rich, the social climbers and the profligate son with the same brushstroke. In a society ruled by class, the play seems to say, no one is innocent.
Lady Faringford dislikes and fears Jackson's opponent who criticizes her husband because he rented a drafty cottage to a worker, who subsequently died of pneumonia, and then wanted to evict his widow for nonpayment of rent; but while Eustaces's sympathies clearly lie with the widow, he has no intention of rousing himself to do anything to help her or others in her class. In fact, Eustace attempts to do nothing for his own sister, who has neither the money nor the position to make a good match and will most probably end up an old maid.
The United States has never been a country where one couldn't buy position for oneself or at the very least one's children. But that hardly makes this country a classless society. Over a hundred years after its writing, race, ethnicity and money still separate people often living just a few blocks from each other. ''The Prodigal Son'' has not lost its relevance, even if Paris Hilton does spend a few days in jail.
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