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BWW Review: A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES Weighs in at Boston's Huntington Theatre

Written by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel by John Kennedy Toole; directed by David Esbjornson; scenic design, Riccardo Hernandez; costume design, Michael Krass; lighting design, Scott Zielinski; sound design, Mark Bennett and Charles Coes; projection design, Sven Ortel; original music, Mark Bennett; music director, Wayne Barker; fight choreographer, Ted Hewlett; movement coach, Kelli Edwards; dialect coach, Amelia Broome

Cast in Order of Appearance:

Ignatius J. Reilly, Nick Offerman; Patrolman Mancuso, Paul Melendy; Claude Robichaux, Ed Peed; Irene Reilly, Anita Gillette; Bartender/Pianist, Wayne Barker; Darlene, Talene Monahon; Dorian Greene/Mr. Gonzalez, Arnie Burton; Lana Lee/Myrna Minkoff, Stephanie DiMaggio; Burma Jones, Phillip James Brannon; Sergeant/Gus Levy, Steven Rosen; George/Mrs. Levy, Stacey Yen; Miss Trixie, Julie Halston; Santa Battaglia, Lusia Strus; Mr. Watson/Mr. Clyde, Lonnie Farmer; Trombonist, David L. Harris

Performances and Tickets:

Now through December 20, Huntington Theatre Company, BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, Mass.; tickets start at $25 and are available online at or by calling the Box Office at 617-266-0800.

Jeffrey Hatcher's stage adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A CONFERERACY OF DUNCES, now in its world premiere at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, feels like a lost opportunity. Much like its obnoxious and oversized central character Ignatius J. Reilly, a slovenly, unemployed 30-year-old still living with and supported by his sweetly doting mother, the play is a lumbering behemoth that is often equal parts boring and boorish.

Set in New Orleans during the mid-1960s, DUNCES takes its title from the Jonathan Swift quote, "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him." This is more or less the mantra that Ignatius lives by, he being the self-described "genius" whose world view is misunderstood by everyone around him.

As the story unfolds, an anxious Ignatius narrowly escapes arrest thanks to the quick thinking of his wily mother. When on the way home his incessant nagging inadvertently causes her to crash her car into a porch upright, she subsequently insists that he get a job to pay the damages. This ultimatum catapults the disdainful and intestinally distressed recluse into a workaday world that he is ill equipped to handle. In no time at all the academically gifted but socially inept Ignatius wreaks havoc at several places of employment. Spurred on by sympathetic letters from his militant ex-girlfriend Myrna, Ignatius blames everyone but himself for his misfortunes. The fact that he belches, farts, condescends and hasn't bathed or changed his bizarre Maine woodsman clothing in, quite likely, years is of no consequence. He's the visionary with the Master's Degree. Everyone else is a "mongoloid."

The chief challenge in bringing John Kennedy Toole's quirky cult novel to life in three dimensions is in making a rather unlikable and mean-spirited anti-hero embraceable despite his many flaws. On the page, Ignatius' arrogance and offensive belittling of others can be tempered by a reader's imagination. On stage that burden rests solely with the actor portraying him. At the Huntington, director David Esbjornson has tapped television's affably off-beat Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation, Fargo) to do the heavy lifting. Late in the going we do get glimpses of the insecure gargantuan who sublimates his feelings in gluttony and self-gratification. For much too much of the play, though, Offerman's Ignatius is nothing more than a self-righteous whining elitist trapped in the armor of an impenetrable fat suit.

The play is also hobbled by Hatcher's almost reverent adherence to the episodic nature of Toole's novel. He includes all of the book's convoluted sub-plots, thereby causing scenes to be truncated jarringly as they jump back and forth between storylines. Offerman is also frequently cast as narrator, delivering many of Ignatius' bloviated speeches directly to the audience. What is gained is an array of colorful characters brought to life by a delightful cast. What is lost is the momentum of a steadily building dramatic context that adds power and poignancy to the laughs.

As a farcical examination of racism, capitalism, economic and social inequality, intellectualism, police corruption and even mental illness, Toole's A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES was actually quite daring for its time. It was also, unfortunately, quite prescient. One can easily imagine Toole castigating the current crop of dunces running for office, or the unjust institutional failings that persist today. Even the larger-than-life Ignatius has a stereotypical contemporary counterpart that Toole could never have predicted. Substitute a computer for the hundreds of yellow lined paper notebooks in which Ignatius writes his many (unpublished) manifestos and he suddenly becomes a slacker and self-anointed blogger trying to topple the military-industrial complex from his bedroom in his parents' basement.

Since the stage adaptation of A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES is crammed with tedious exposition, much of the play's pointed humor glances but doesn't pierce. The happy exceptions involve Phillip James Brannon as the underpaid young black man Burma Jones and Anita Gillette as Ignatius' much put upon mother Irene.

Brannon exudes a wry charm that walks a fine line between acquiescence and rebellion. His Jones is an ambitious man caught between the lingering prejudices of the past and the opportunities promised by the Civil Rights Movement that are yet to be delivered. Threatened to be jailed for vagrancy by Patrolman Mancuso (Paul Melendy) if he doesn't get a job immediately, Jones is relegated to mopping floors at the Night of Joy bar for $20 a week, considerably less than the minimum wage. Realistic but definitely not grateful, Brannon infuses Jones with a quick wit and glowing smile that allow him to lacerate his victims without their even knowing it. He deflects the discrimination he endures with humor, but one gets the sense that he is also keeping score. When the time is right, he'll fight for what he deserves - and there's no doubt he'll win.

As the dutiful widow and matriarch Irene Reilly, Gillette is the kindness at the core of A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES. She has put up with her son's bloated personality and self-indulgent bellowing ever since his childhood, yet she still wants nothing more than an "I love you" and a hug from him. When she unexpectedly begins to carve out a life for herself separate from Ignatius, however, their relationship grows more contentious. The girlish joy she feels when stepping out with new friends energizes her to stand up to Ignatius. She manages to square her tiny 5'1" frame into a pillar of determination. Her eyes sparkling with wounded wit and wisdom, Gillette is that wonderful combination of funny and endearing.

The supporting cast of A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES is also uniformly excellent. Paul Melendy is a mass of kind-hearted befuddlement as the inept Patrolman Mancuso. Lusia Strus as his outgoing Aunt Santa is bold, brassy, and true blue. Ed Peed is the perfect elder southern gentleman Claude Robichaux, and Julie Halston curses and bumbles battily as the should-have-retired-years-ago office worker Miss Trixie. Talene Monahon channels her inner "gypsy" as Darlene, the exotic dancer wannabe whose "gimmick" is her pet cockatoo. Arnie Burton, Stephanie DiMaggio, Steve Rosen, Stacey Yen and Lonnie Farmer all do double duty as various antagonists and denizens of the Big Easy.

The Huntington design team has achieved the impossible by moving the cast among multiple New Orleans locales effortlessly. Given the number and variety of scene changes written by Hatcher, this accomplishment is particularly laudable. Portable luminescent panels and backdrops "painted" with evocative projections shift fluidly to define both interiors and exteriors distinctly. Among the many settings are the A. J. Holmes Department Store, police station, Night of Joy strip club, Irene's home, the Levy Pants office and its factory. During the scene changes a pianist and trombonist play jazzy musical interludes, inviting the audience to stroll down Bourbon Street where the decadent mingle with the beautiful.

To further enhance the fluidity of movement, Esbjornson has chosen to keep stage props to a minimum. He has directed his cast instead to pantomime everyday activities such as typing, opening and closing car doors, sweeping, eating and drinking. Using a combination of exaggerated gestures and humorous sound effects, the concept actually seems fitting. The unorthodox technique successfully straddles the play's quirky mix of the realistic and the fanciful.

The creators and producers of THE CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES have stated that their aim is to move the play to Broadway. Before that happens it would seem wise to wrangle this unruly epic into a more cohesive satire. The hulking egoist at the center of the story could also use a dash of vulnerability. As it stands now the play is woefully out of balance. The dunces are more appealing than the genius.

PHOTOS BY CHARLES T. ERICKSON: Nick Offerman as Ignatius J. Reilly; Nick Offerman, Anita Gillette as Irene Reilly and Paul Melendy as Patrolman Mancuso; Nick Offerman and Phillip James Brannon as Burma Jones; Ed Peed as Claude Robichaux, Anita Gillette, and Lusia Strus as Santa Battaglia; Julie Halston as Miss Trixie and Stacey Yen as Mrs. Levy; David L. Harris as the Trombonist

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