It’s hard to dramatize language, and that is the nut this show needs to crack. A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES is the latest presentation by the Huntington Theatre Company adapted by Jefferey Hatcher from John Kennedy Toole’s posthumously published Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Its title is derived from Jonathan Swift’s witty observation about the recognition of genius by way of the witless response to it. But what, on the page, is a rollicking, pungently picaresque polemic of urbane commentary, scathing social satire, abiding appreciation for the absurd, and the oft obscene pun (“I love a cock-a-too!” chirps dotty old Miss Trixie) becomes a concretely diminished concatenation of less than dramatic events on the stage.
Toole’s dazzling imagination and verbiage remain the stars of the show, despite an exceptional cast. TV’s “Parks and Recreation” star Nick Offerman is the absolute embodiment of Ignatius J. Reilly, the book’s flatulent, masturbating protagonist and corpulent critic at large; a bloated baby and caustic chronicler of all he surveys, Ignatius still lives at home with his impoverished mom in the Big Easy. The exceptional Anita Gillette as Ignatius’s flame-haired mother Irene, grounds the production with her warmth and clear-eyed pragmatism.
Thus this colorful odyssey is also about growing up, not just out. Ignatius sets out to get a job but his exuberant liberalism takes over; as he makes his way through a gumbo of colorful characters in his native “N’awlins” in the ’60’s, he can’t help examining “the soullessness of the proletariat,” and is bent on “bringing capitalism crashing to its knees. ” He wastes no time organizing a workers’ revolt, while evading the law and the looney bin, fleetingly filling in as a hot dog vendor, and eventually conjuring up a gay uprising for world peace– but not before a “cockatoo-tastrophe” of avian proportions occurs in a seedy French Quarter strip club.
Minimal sets fly in and out around mostly imaginary props; the onstage pianist and trombonist help execute the sound design, an ongoing aural collage from dixieland jazz to a concluding madrigal. This marvelous cast is always in motion, often in multiple roles. I especially enjoyed Arnie Burton as a flamboyantly dapper Dorian Greene, Julie Halston as the aforementioned Miss Trixie, and Paul Melendy as befuddled Patrolman Mancuso.
But most of these characters do not exist in any emotionally connectable way; they have been directed into hyperbole. With the exception of Anita Gillette’s Mrs. Reilly and perhaps Ed Peed’s Claude Robichaux who comes a courtin,’ these characters are walking caricatures, already their own commentary, upstaging Ignatius’s wry observations. At the very least, this misdirection flattens out whatever humor and dramatic tension might have erupted from the distance between this motley menagerie’s lack of self awareness and Ignatius arch perspective.
To my way of thinking, these characters seem to exist more fully in the ether of Toole’s extravagant imagination and rhetorical virtuosity than in this less than dramatically fleshed out theatrical adaptation. In the beginning was the word– and it was divine. A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES, Huntington Theatre Company through December 20!