June 5, 2007

I’m not sure that there’s a more entertaining play in New York City at the moment than the Mint Theater Company’s magnificent production of St. John Hankin’s The Return of the Prodigal. And even though the play was written more than a hundred years ago, I’m also not sure that there’s a play on the boards that’s more timely or pertinent than this one. Which ever of those two reasons will get you on the phone to reserve tickets, I advise you to make haste.

The play’s title encapsulates the story neatly. The Jackson family are wealthy (if perhaps nouveau riche) entrepreneurs: Samuel Jackson, the patriarch of this prosperous clan, heads a booming cloth-making business, and his elder son Henry not only assists but augments, eyeing new opportunities hungrily and shrewdly to expand the operations and the revenues. Henry is also interested in making the family more socially respectable, and to that end, he’s planning to wed the daughter of a local dynasty who, despite their impressive-sounding titles and lineage, are pretty much impoverished. (To her credit, Stella Faringford isn’t much interested in marrying for money, but her impossibly domineering mother, Lady Faringford, isn’t going to let that stand in the way.)

Samuel’s wife is good-hearted, well-meaning, but a little dim (think Billie Burke in Dinner at Eight); their daughter, Violet, is older than the usual marrying age and more or less resigned to being a family caretaker (and, eventually, caregiver).

As the play opens, everything is going as expected at a dinner party that the Jacksons are giving for the Faringfords (Sir John is managing Jackson’s campaign for Parliament, another reason for the families to become allies). And then, as Hankin has warned us in his title, the prodigal Jackson offspring does indeed suddenly return home.

Eustace Jackson, nearly 30 but unwilling to embrace maturity on any terms, is found in a heap at the front doorstep. When he’s been revived by some brandy and smelling salts, he allows as how he walked to the family estate from London. His eight years in Australia have been catastrophic: not only did he lose all the money his father gave him to get started, but he’s failed at any number of business enterprises and all he has left are the clothes on his back.

Eustace is a smashing character, a man who is brutally honest (to himself, always; to others, except when necessary). He never suggests he’s going to reform and follow in Henry’s footsteps. But his entitlement is, literally, his birthright, and he’s not about to see himself reduced to ignominy.

Hankin’s plotting is delicious and goes places you won’t expect—not for a play written today and certainly not for one written back in 1905. How prescient this piece turns out to be! The final scenes expose some raw truths about how we live that not only resonate sharply but, for me at least, explain a great deal about what’s wrong with our so-called morality.

Jonathan Bank brings The Return of the Prodigal to the stage masterfully, departing from the Mint’s usual practice by editing out the obvious references to a particular time period (he explains what he’s done in a very useful program note). Set and costume designer Clint Ramos, in line with Bank’s smart vision, outfits the play in chic and stark whites, ivories, and beiges (the furniture as well as the clothes), providing a timeless yet up-to-date environment for the play to unfold in. The 11-member ensemble is well-nigh flawless, with particularly expert work coming from Tandy Cronyn and Richard Kline as the elder Jacksons, Kate Levy as the insufferable Lady Faringford, Margot White as her likable daughter Stella, and Bradford Cover and Roderick Hill as Henry and Eustace.

The 2007-08 season has only just begun, but it can boast already of a worthy and substantial hit. The Return of the Prodigal is as smart and engaging as it is entertaining, and that’s a combination to cherish in the theatre. It may well be the finest production the Mint has yet done, and that’s saying something, too. Put it at the top of your list of summer theatergoing.