|Nick Offerman & Cast of "A Confederacy of Dunces"|
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)
“Ignatius J. Reilly”; say it soft and it's almost like praying. Or so think some multitudes of avid readers (including this critic) of this antihero of the 1981 novel “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole. In the forward to the book by its primary advocate, novelist Walker Percy, Ignatius is described succinctly as a “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas, rolled into one who is in violent revolt against the entire modern age...who between gigantic seizures of flatulence and eructations is filling dozens of Big Chief tablets with invective”. The title refers to a quotation from Jonathan Swift: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him”. Percy was introduced to Toole's novel by the author's persistent mother years after her son's death by suicide at 31. Percy was blown away by it, championed it until it was finally published, and basked in reflected glory when it subsequently won the Pulitzer. It was the object of several proposals over the years for a film version, none of which ever saw the light of day, save for a reading of a Steven Soderbergh screenplay in 2003. Some began to believe the effort was jinxed, as alluded to in the non-fiction work by Cory MacLaughlin (“Butterfly in the Typewriter”) about the author's struggles with himself and the world. Now, at last, Huntington Theatre Company is presenting the world premiere of a fully staged version adapted by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher. Fingers and sphincters crossed, Ignatius' legion of fans waited in hushed anticipation mixed with more than just a touch of anxiety and dread.
They need not have been concerned. Though the concept of bringing this 300-pound bloviating bellower of bovine banality was a daunting one in thought, it's a haunting one in execution. Ignatius has been described as “excessive in all things”, “huge,obese, fractious, fastidious, a latter-day Gargantua”, “Falstaffian” with “echoes of Shakespeare and Wilde”, “a grand comic figure”, “a brainy, obnoxious, gassy, hefty center of gravity”, an outlandish “slovenly cynic whose snobbery is even more off-putting than his distinct lack of hygiene”, a “classic archetype”, and a “legend in his own mind”. On the page, he considers himself the center of the universe; on stage, he's all this and more. The play, as did the book, throws together the great social forces of the counterculture of 1960's America, such as race, and whether an original like Ignatius can outwit the nitwits. As Hatcher has said, “a lot of the people in this play are trapped. The way out for them may be success, it may be freedom, it may be leaving New Orleans. Ignatius is frightened of leaving New Orleans but he must. Like the rest of them, he's trapped and looking for a way out”. His is a difficult personality to embrace. Unless he's present in the person of one Nick Offerman.
Offerman is a perfect deadpan choice for our central character in a work full of characters of all sorts and sizes (fifteen or more). Though we're spared the book's describing his favorite flops of the cinema (such as two Doris Day films, “Billy Rose's Jumbo” and “That Touch of Mink”), he's still an omniscient critic of all in his wake. Offerman manages, with the raising of an eyebrow, the haughtiness of his tone, and his pontificating delivery, to embody this fantastic creature. Then there's his mother Irene (Anita Gillette, fondly remembered for delivering some of Irving Berlin's funniest lyrics ever, in the song “The Secret Service Makes Me Nervous”, from Mr.President). Gillette remains a cosmic comic force to be reckoned with. The remaining cast of characters: a caustic Burma Jones (Phillip James Brannon), an overly swishy Dorian Greene and wimpy Mr. Gonzalez (Arnie Burton), a domineering Lana Lee and protofeminist Myrna (Stephanie DiMaggio), a hilariously comatose Miss Trixie (Julie Halston), as well as Officer Mancuso (Paul Melendy), Mr. Watson and Mr. Clyde (Lonnie Farmer), Darlene (Talene Monahon), Claude Robichaux (Ed Peed), Gus Levy and Sergeant (Steve Rosen), Santa Battaglia (Lusia Strus, with a voice that could shatter glass), Mrs. Levy and George (Stacey Yen), a Bartending Pianist (Wayne Barker, who also provided Music Direction), and a Trombonist (David L. Harris). It's a cast of fifteen, an anomaly in these dramatically underpopulated days. As Directed by David Esbjornson they're mostly wonderful and crucial. Equally important are the creative team contributions: inventive Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez (with countless short scenes defined with the help of sliding panels), painstaking Costume Design by Michael Krass (with Ignatius' hunter's cap, suspenders, and untied boots, he's a vision in plaid), complex Lighting Design by Scott Zielinski (which also helps to designate scene changes), and, perhaps most vital, the perfect Sound Design by Mark Bennett and Charles Coes (reminisicent of movie post-production Foley sound effects work, with the cast's pantomiming replacing props, which are heard but not seen), excellent Original Music by Bennett (lending a helpful New Orleans feel) and fine but restrained Projection Design by Sven Ortel.
Thus there's a great deal of talent on display all around. The question remains whether the script itself is sufficiently insightful as to make its central character as unforgettable “live and in color” as he has been in written form. Hatcher has said that no one is indifferent to the book; people either love it or toss it across the room. A similar fate seems likely for this staged version. Audiences will love it and loathe it, depending on their tolerance for Ignatius himself. With consummate pagecraft, in written form he was weirdly lovable; with the parameters of stagecraft, Ignatius in living color is someone who, though still fascinating, wouldn't necessarily be one's first choice as a companion on a transcontinental road trip (or trans-city, for that matter). Many will welcome him; after all, nothing succeeds like excess. The play has already broken box office records, as the second highest grossing production by the company (after last season's wondrous Jungle Book).
All's well (or maybe not) that ends well as our hero presses Myrna's pigtail to his wet mustache in his poignant approach avoidance in the final scene. This adaptation is often brilliant, wildly creative and engrossing (in more ways than one). While at this point in time it needs a Weight Watchers regimen to reach its full potential, it's already a wacky wonder that captures the essence of a much beloved book as few such adaptations do. As was the novel, this play will have its advocates as well as detractors. In its present form, all signs lead one to hope for a leaner but no meaner future. Let Ignatius himself have the last word: “I refuse to 'look up'; optimism nauseates me”.