The Huntington Theatre Company is giving Jeffrey Hatcher’s stage adaptation of the celebrated comic novel a congenial production.
A Confederacy of Dunces by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by John Kennedy Toole. Directed by David Esbjornson. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Avenue of the Arts / Boston University Theatre, through December 20.
By Bill Marx
Chalk it up to grievous negligence of critical duty, but I didn’t have time to reread John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces before seeing Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of the 1980 comic novel, which is now receiving a congenial production by the Huntington Theatre Company. I read the novel a couple of decades ago and remember the experience vividly—it was a rich, laugh out lampoon of American decadence, set in New Orleans during the early ‘60s with a flatulent, 30-year-old anti-hero named Ignatius J. Reilly at its riotous center.
Idiosyncrasy reigned supreme, in terms of the novel’s language, playful narrative structure, and vivid descriptions of the French Quarter. All the invention was at the service of a take-down of various types of revolution, sexual, economic, and domestic. The book’s impish satire spins an ironic variation on the Jonathan Swift quotation that inspired its title: “When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.” That Reilly’s ‘genius’ stems from his anarchistic celebration of Boethius’ sixth-century Consolation of Philosophy suggests Toole’s affectionate but stinging condemnation of Southern madness, its adherence to an antiquated past generating grotesque forms of rebellion and obeisance.
While watching Hatcher’s efficient adaptation, I began to doubt my memories of the book. Was A Confederacy of Dunces no more than what it seems to be here—a quirky and somewhat sentimental sitcom? At the HTC, every dunce in the storyline comes off as damnably likable. And isn’t Reilly supposed to be an unruly reprobate rather than a somewhat cuddly wisenheimer? If the novel was as fangless as this, why would it have been rejected by so many publishers when it was first offered to them? Toole wrote the book in the early ’60s; it was published posthumously only after author Walker Percy, besieged by Toole’s determined mother, read the manuscript and championed the book, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. I remember there being something sharp and jagged woven into Toole’s gaudy comic vision: glimpses of an ungovernable lower depths roiling with homosexuals, whores, transvestites, and lesbians; authorial applause for Reilly’s baroque condemnations of stupidity, greed, and indecency.
Perhaps the book has dated? I am not sure: in the HTC production, Reilly doesn’t suggest a wild whirlwind, a crass castigator of the clueless underclass. He is a sort of autistic Baby Huey surrounded by likable and/or cute Southern caricatures off of which he bounces insulting one-liners. No one seems to take all that much umbrage at what he prattles, aside from his understandably fed-up mother, Irene, and her supportive boyfriend, Claude Robichaux. As for the novel’s risqué episodes, they are served up on stage with maximum modesty: there is no nudity in the chaotic stripper-meets-escaped-cockatoo scene and Reilly’s chronic masturbation is conveyed through the see-saw sounds of squeaking bed springs.
Perhaps the problem is that, as George S. Kaufman concluded, satire closes on Saturday night. Maybe Hatcher, who is a very talented adaptor, felt he couldn’t seriously tamper with the novel because to do so would disappoint its fans. And he didn’t dare dig into the novel’s flickers of liberal-baiting conflict because it might offend audiences. The action of this picaresque novel is not compressed enough to work as a launching pad for exhilarating farce. The plot can be extracted from the book’s hodgepodge structure easily enough: the first act climax is the aborted strike Reilly leads at a pants factory, followed by his hapless stint as a hot dog vendor and then the culminating nightclub debacle. But this trail of mayhem doesn’t generate much dramatic conflict. Neither is A Confederacy of Dunces an in-depth character study, in the sense that over the course of the evening Reilly undergoes some sort of maturing transformation—he is pretty much the same oddball at the end as he is in the beginning.
Thus Hatcher’s choice of neat, TV-sized scenes and the use of screens and projections to allude to the shifting backgrounds. The blankness of the stage space and the generic furniture means that, aside from costumes and music (and we could could use much more of the latter than what is provided), we get an attenuated image of New Orleans culture. We are asked to imagine the glorious seediness of the atmosphere, the tawdriness of the scenery and illicit activity (no looks at pornography, though we do get some shots of a cockatoo). But this is a book whose genius partly lies in its concrete evocation of devilish details—and these are inevitably left on the theatrical cutting room floor.
This is not to say the HTC production isn’t pleasant throughout. There are some chuckles here, many provided by the generally game supporting cast members. Arnie Burton and Julie Halston play their eccentric types with gusto. Ed Peed, whom I have followed for decades on local stages, makes for a cantankerous, if disappointingly nice, Claude, while Anita Gillette is energetic as Irene, though she lays the indomitability on pretty thick. Would the play have been produced without TV’s Nick Offerman donning the requisite fat suit as Ignatius J. Reilly? Offerman provides an amusingly nasty shellshocked clown. But his Reilly never becomes a Falstaffian monster, a rapacious figure of ungovernable appetites—most of his lines are delivered via deadpan, which means that his put-downs veer toward the mechanical. Though Offerman finagles a neat variation or two on the march of snide jibes and comes up with some nimble double and triple takes.
Finally, though, the production doesn’t answer the essential question: Why stage A Confederacy of Dunces in 2015? (There have been numerous attempts over the decades, all stillborn, to make a movie of the book.) The novel is set at the beginning of the counterculture ’60s, so there is the inevitable nostalgia factor, a precious glimpse of a pre-Disneyfied French Quarter. But mainstream culture today celebrates itself for celebrating diversity in all its forms (as long as it is polite and doesn’t demand any lifestyle changes). There’s not much in this show that invites disapproval, including Reilly’s insanity: his hijinks are laughed at now with nods of approval. The end of the HTC’s A Confederacy of Dunces presents us with a reassuring (somehow ironic?) vision of empowerment that includes a love-smitten Reilly. One can safely predict what Ignatius and his creator would have thought about that kind of crassly comfortable consolation.
Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.