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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL
at the Mint Theater (off-Bway)

SPARRING PARTNERS
By David Lefkowitz

  photo: Richard Termine

A young man who can't fit in, disappoints his father at every turn and resorts to desperate measures before resigning himself to the inevitability of failure. No, it's not Moritz in Spring Awakening, it's Eustace, black sheep of the Jackson family in St. John Hankins The Return of the Prodigal, a pitch-dark 1905 comedy that, amazingly, has never been staged in New York. Leave it to the Mint Theater to rediscover this gem, mount it cleanly, and leave us marveling at just how hip/cynical/penetrating a playwright could be a century ago.

As ever with these types of plays, things start slowly. The rich, politically-connected Jacksons lounge in their Gloucestershire home alongside snobbish Lady Faringford (Kate Levy), their not-so-rich but upwardly mobile lady friend with a daughter she hopes will marry earnest, dutiful Henry Jackson (Bradford Cover), a chip off his father's smooth but soulless block. Enter long-lost Eustace, the son they sent off to Australia after his numerous botched attempts to make something of himself. This prodigal son lives off his mother's sympathy, livens up the family dynamic and even begins his own flirtation with Stella Faringford, who responds more to his openness than to his sibling's stability.

Sick of his son's repeated disappointments and exasperated by the young man's resignation, papa Samuel (Richard Kline) tries all manner of bribery and ultimatums to force Eustace back out of the house. Stung by his father's rejection and realizing he's at wit's end, Eustace responds with blackmail of his own, leading to a showdown that still shocks with its cynical tone, even as it wrenches when we realize just how hopeless the rest of Eustace's life will be.

Following the necessary exposition, director Jonathan Bank gets to the curdled heart of the play and holds it firmly, though it feels like a mistake to have set the production in a modern-looking drawing room with a bleached tan backdrop, and to garb the families in current fashions. The language and mores, though direct and recognizable, still feel a little out of their element when shifted to 2007. As Eustace, Roderick Hill tries to bridge this time gap with an ultra-naturalistic performance - and he actually pulls it off, even though his striking resemblance to rock star Beck makes him seem more like a slacker in Almost Famous than an early 20th century ne'er-do-well.

The rest of the cast fit more formally within the period of the play, which makes sense, since Eustace is, in many ways, a man out of time. Perhaps the darkest irony of this disquieting work is that its author lived only two years after its completion. Hankin's satires in Punch gave him a cultural voice, his dramas were lauded by the likes of Shaw and Granville-Barker, and his themes contributed to the modernization of English drama; however, he feared inheriting his father's mental illlness and, in a fit of depression, drowned himself. We can now see Hankin's influence on everyone from John Osborne to Arthur Miller to Edward Albee; if only we didn't see his shadow in Spalding Grey.

 

 

 


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