June 13, 2007

The Mint Theater makes other companies look ridiculous by lovingly producing forgotten plays that are much better than many that are repeatedly revived.

For instance, how is it possible that the Edwardian social dramas of Harley Granville Barker, whose reputation the Mint’s artistic director, Jonathan Bank, helped revive, fell out of favor? And can it really be true, as the Mint reports in its press materials, that St. John Hankin’s lacerating 1905 comedy, “The Return of the Prodigal,” is only now receiving its New York premiere?

In this case, better late than never. Mr. Hankin — an accomplished critic, satirist and dramatist who committed suicide six years after he started writing plays — created a coolly enthralling play about a timeless subject: failure.

The prodigal son of the title is Eustace Jackson (a dynamite Roderick Hill), a charming wastrel who demonstrates the wit of Oscar Wilde (“I’m hardly well enough to talk seriously twice in one day”) and the contrarianism of Shaw. He returns from Australia, where he had tried to make his fortune, penniless, feigning sickness and taking advantage of every kind of hospitality offered by his wealthy family.

But instead of growing up and going to work — as slackers do in more moralistic dramas (see the recent “Knocked Up”) — Mr. Jackson decides to try something more sensible: he blackmails his father.

Lounging around the stage with a smirk plastered on his face, Mr. Hill, who delivers a physically precise and surprisingly emotional performance, captures the tragedy of Eustace: He’s too self-aware to ignore his own shortcomings and too smart (or lazy) to think that he can change them. In his and our hyper-competitive society, what are we to do with people like this? Taking the idea of social Darwinism to its logical conclusion, Eustace argues provocatively that he should be killed.

His father (Richard Kline) probably agrees (and so does his responsible brother, Henry, played with controlled exasperation by Bradford Cover), but the law and his political ambitions prevent him from conceding the point.

Incidentally, Mr. Hankin isn’t the only forgotten talent rediscovered in this stylish production staged by Mr. Bank. Sitcom fans will recognize Mr. Kline, whose severity provides a nice foil to Mr. Hill’s glibness, as the quintessential swinging bachelor Larry Dallas from “Three’s Company.”

Mr. Hankin clearly delights in making seemingly preposterous arguments and then following them wherever they may go. The plot doesn’t build toward a resolution so much as gradually unravel until the unpleasant essence of the central relationship between father and son is mercilessly revealed. It is a denouement that Neil LaBute would love.

Skewering free-market-style competition along with the fake compassion of the welfare state, Mr. Hankin exposes an upper class full of frauds, liars and opportunists, and then asks pointedly: What does it mean to be a failure in a world like this?