‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ — Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by John Kennedy Toole; Directed by David Esbjornson; Musical Direction by Wayne Barker; Costumes by Michael Krass; Lighting Design by Scott Zielinski; Sound Design by Mark Bennett and Charles Coes. Presented by The Huntington Theatre Company at the BU Theater, 264 Huntington Ave, Boston, through December 20th.
If you’re a fan of either Nick Offerman, one of the stars of the television series “Parks and Recreation” or the 1960’s picaresque novel “A Confederacy of Dunces”, chances are you will find the world premiere of the stage production of that work now being presented by The Huntington Theatre Company enormously entertaining. But if you, like me, aren’t familiar with either, you may find this play to be a little too close to sitcom (albeit an ambitious one) to be considered a fully developed theater piece. Which is a little surprising given the source material, which won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1981 and has been described by some as a ‘comic masterpiece’.
‘Confederacy’ centers around the failed exploits of Ignatius J. Reilly (played convincingly by the very funny Offerman), a rotund 30-year old undiscovered genius — at least in his own mind. The title of the book and play is derived from this quote by Jonathan Swift (which is apparently meant to be ironic for the book’s purposes): “When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.” The witty but acid-tongued Ignatius certainly believes that of himself, and therefore does not suffer fools gladly — whether it be police officers or strangers in the street. And he saves the worst of his invective for his mother, who despite feeding, clothing and providing him shelter (and enabling him to remain in his underachieving state) with no reciprocity, remains the target of his condescending sniping.
Asked what he does with all of his time lounging about his mother’s house (other than pleasuring himself off-stage in a crudely funny bit), he responds, “I dust a bit. In addition, I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century.” In some ways he is the 1960’s equivalent of an internet troll, spending all of his time critiquing everyone and everything around him instead of either doing something to change the world or — heaven forbid — looking at himself.
His doting mother finally tires of his joblessness, so he reluctantly secures a position as a file clerk with a company called Levy’s Pants, where he leads an ill-fated worker’s rights movement a few days into his career that results in his firing, which leads to an even more absurd job. There is also an involved subplot about an Eva Braun-esque strip joint owner illegally selling pornographic photographs under the noses of the vice squad while an apprentice stripper prepares her stage act (with a cockatoo). And while that is all undoubtedly funny stuff in the book, it just feels superfluous here. It is one of many story threads that doesn’t feel well developed for the stage version, and the somewhat convoluted plot sometimes feels as if the play’s adaptors are trying to stuff as many elements of the book into the two-and-a-half hours as they can to satisfy fans.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t some very funny moments in this play. The audience laughed throughout, and I did in spots, mostly at Ignatius’ erudite putdowns or rationalizations of his bizarre behavior. Offerman is terrific in this role, and he has some very funny character support, including Arnie Burton as a 60’s caricature of a gay man named Dorian Greene, and Paul Melendy as Officer Mancuso, the undercover cop assigned to find “perverts” while dressing like a nun and other absurd costumes. Anita Jillette as Ignatius’ mother and Ed Peed as her suitor Claude also submit fine performances.
The costumes are a plus and they appear to be period appropriate, which makes the director’s choice to pantomime everything from newspapers to drink glasses such a curious choice, made even more peculiar when sound effects of car doors opening or someone typing are provided. If you’re going to spend money on costumes, why not spring for a couple of beer bottles and a copy of the Times-Picayune? The music between scenes is also a plus, anchoring the action firmly in New Orleans. This show is scheduled to head for Broadway in the spring, so there are bound to be massive changes to make it a little more cohesive before then. For more info, go to: http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2015-2016/confederacy-of-dunces/.