Monday, November 30, 2015

Literary Theatre: A Confederacy of Dunces and Thérèse Raquin

Nick Offerman, Talene Monahon, and Anita Gillette in A Confederacy of Dunces. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces, published in 1980, more than a decade after Toole’s suicide, and awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, has a reputation as one of the great Southern novels (its setting is New Orleans in the early 1960s). But I confess to being a non-believer; for me, a little of Toole’s self-conscious wit and literary braggadocio goes a long way. I might find it less of a slog with a different protagonist, but Ignatius J. Reilly, the overfed misanthrope who lives off his indulgent mama until he’s thirty and then, landing a position at a pants company that he turns, through a combination of deviousness and perverseness and the stupidity of his supervisor, Mr. Gonzalez, into little more than a sinecure and an excuse for undermining his employer, doesn’t strike me as either especially clever or even slightly sympathetic. The book’s point of view seems to be that the world around Reilly is so infested with dunces that it deserves what it gets; the title is from 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,” and Toole may also intend some link to Pope’s literary-satirical Dunciad. The novel has a happy ending because, try as he may, Reilly can’t do any real damage in a community of idiots. For this sort of idea, I much prefer Kaufman and Hart’s great 1930 hard-boiled comedy Once in a Lifetime, where the target is Hollywood at the dawn of sound and the hero who keeps landing on his feet, George, is a blissful dope himself. Reilly’s high-flown pronouncements about the decline of the western world (some of them delivered as he sits through the fare at his local movie house) didn’t make me laugh; they put me in a sour mood.

Attempts to put Toole’s book on the screen, going back to 1982, have famously fallen through, so you have to admire Jeffrey Hatcher for writing a stage version and getting it produced at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company. And I think Hatcher has talent: I love Stage Beauty, his screenplay, based on his own play, about the first actresses to appear on the English stage, set during the era of Charles II. But alas, A Confederacy of Dunces isn’t a very good play: it’s bloated and it totters. Perhaps it would fare better in a less visually ugly production than the one designed by Sven Ortel (sets) and Michael Krass (costumes). (I have no quarrel with Scott Zielinski’s lighting.) It could certainly benefit from a more imaginative director: David Esbjornson mostly stages the actors in straight lines.

The production’s main draw is Nick Offerman, of TV’s Parks and Recreation, who plays Ignatius as if he were the droll anti-hero of a W.C. Fields picture – not a bad approach, though it wears thin over two and a half hours. Offerman suits up in plain view of the audience; this Brechtian flourish doesn’t amount to much, but it gives us permission not to take him too seriously. The fifteen-member ensemble labors mightily (some of them in more than one role), and a few are quite enjoyable, especially Arnie Burton as Gonzalez and the outrageous gay punster Dorian Greene and Ed Peed as the anti-Commie Claude Robichaux, who winds up paying court to Ignatius’ widowed mother Irene (Anita Gillette). Gillette doesn’t give a great performance, but she’s game and she looks terrific after more than half a century in show business. (She was an ingénue in such early-sixties Broadway musicals as Carnival! and Irving Berlin’s swan song Mr. President, and those of us who love the Norman Jewison romantic comedy Moonstruck have fond memories of her as the tootsie with whom Vincent Gardenia is cheating on Olympia Dukakis.) Both Julie Halston as the demented pants-company employee, long past the logical age for retirement, and Philip James Brannon as the outspoken cynic Burma Jones, who pushes a broom around a bar known as the Night of Joy, get their laughs. Stacey Yen as Mrs. Levy, whose hubby (Steve Rosen) owns the pants business, and in drag as young George, and especially Paul Melendy as put-upon Patrolman Mancuso have less success.

It’s only fair to report that at press night, the audience broke up over every scene and couldn’t get to its collective feet fast enough, so it’s possible that my response to the production, like my response to the novel, is a minority view. But honestly I don’t think that being in sync with the material would make the big farce set pieces look less chaotic and the staging of the smaller scenes less dull. The show is a folly that’s not grand enough to be interesting.

Keira Knightley and Judith Light in the Roundabout Theatre Company's Thérèse Raquin. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Since Émile Zola wrote a fine stage adaptation of his own 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin, about how the suffocation of French bourgeois existence and a husband she finds repugnant drives a young woman to adultery and murder, it’s puzzling that playwrights keep rewriting it. Helen Edmondson’s version, currently on display at the Roundabout Theatre Company, isn’t the first modern version, and though it’s an honest try, Zola’s is considerably more effective. (It’s also more skillfully constructed.) The Roundabout production, which comes only a year after a really good movie version, In Secret, is a tad Masterpiece Theatre-ish, and the second act, where Thérèse and her lover Laurent, having drowned her husband Camille in the Seine, are so overcome with guilt and disgust that they turn against each other, is rather lugubrious. But it’s a gorgeous-looking show, with staging by Evan Cabnet and amazing sets by Beowulf Boritt that make Thérèse’s claustrophobia palpable, costumes by Jane Greenwood and lighting by Keith Parham. Keira Knightley, in her New York stage debut, gets right at the heroine’s sexual hunger and subsequent sexual repulsion; she’s especially good in act two. Gabriel Ebert makes it clear why any woman of spirit would find Camille’s mix of smugness and physical weakness so unappetizing. I had more trouble with Matt Ryan as Laurent, though that may be because in In Secret Oscar Isaac gave the character a sexual ferocity that you miss here. In the pivotal role of Camille’s mother (who is also Thérèse’s aunt, the woman who raised her) – brilliantly impersonated by Jessica Lange in the movie – Judith Light acts up a storm. That’s not a compliment.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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