Where would sitcoms and summer movies be without "the loveable slacker," that underachieving guy (it's always a guy) who manages to get by on charm and moxie? Oh yeah, he sometimes learns to "grow up" in the end, but he sure gets more laughs when acting irresponsibly. Long before Ferris Bueller, Jeff Spicoli and the gang from Clerks became American pop-cultural icons, British playwright St. John Hankin gave the world Eustace Jackson, the freeloading title character of his 1905 "comedy for fathers," The Return Of The Prodigal.
This is the kind of play The Mint Theater Company slurps up by the spoonful. A never-seen-in-America piece written by a playwright who achieved some success in his time but is now largely forgotten, at least on these shores. But with this one Artistic Director Jonathan Bank is trying something a little different from the Mint's usual fare of worthy obscurities presented with impressively period sets and costumes. In directing The Return Of The Prodigal, Bank chooses to make the play look and feel as contemporary to a 2007 audience as it felt to him when first reading it. A smattering of 1905 references have been cut from the text and set and costume designer Clint Ramos does a fine job dressing the stage in a period-nonspecific white faux marble while dressing the characters in clothing that seems generically modern. And though the play's English settng is retained, the actors sound rather local.
The simple plot of this neat little dramatic comedy presents Eustace (Roderick Hill) as the youngest son of cloth mill bigwig Samuel (Richard Kline), who shipped him to Australia five years ago to try and make something of himself. When the prodigal son returns, as they are known to do, it's in tattered clothes, a sickly body and a dramatic faint at the front door. His mother (Tandy Cronyn) and sister (Leah Curney) are delighted to have him back, but when Eustace is quickly restored to good health and resumes enjoying the good life at the family's expense it becomes a particular annoyance to older brother Henry (Bradford Cover), who has been diligently running the family business. Not only has the little brother helped himself to big brother's wardrobe while recovering, but he seems to have charmed Henry's wealthy intended, Stella (Margot White). And although Henry and Samuel have no intention of allowing Eustace to freeload they are hesitant to kick him out because a scandal could ruin Samuel's attempt to run for Parliament and cause Stella's mother (Kate Levy) to forbid the marriage.
Bank's production has a zippy sitcom feel with a very funny Hill leading the way as the sweetly snarky title character. Cover and Kline are formiable straight men giving him lots of conservative stuffiness to play off. Cronyn's slow-witted silliness and Levy's domineering archness are both great fun.
If the play is slight in its commentary on class and wealth, it clocks in at a brisk two hours and there's certainly enough laughter provided by a talented cast to make for an enjoyable night out.
Photos by Richard Termine: Top: Richard Kline and Roderick Hill
Bottom: Leah Curney, Margot White and Roderick Hill