Review: MR. TOOLE at 59E59 Theaters Depicts a Captivating Backstory of John Kennedy Toole

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"I failed him once, I won't fail him again." By Thelma in Mr. Toole

59E59 Theaters is now presenting Mr. Toole, a production that will appeal to literature and drama lovers alike. 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of "The Confederacy of Dunces," the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by John Kennedy Toole that was published posthumously. The play depicts the story of the author, his work, family, and the submissions of his famous novel. The Off-Broadway premiere of this play is superbly written by Vivian Neuwirth, finely directed by Cat Parker, and features an outstanding cast.

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John Kennedy Toole, called Ken, was educated at Tulane and Columbia Universities and served in the U.S. Army, stationed in Puerto Rico. In the play, Ken returns home to live with his parents in New Orleans where he teaches literature at a local Catholic girls college, St. Mary's Dominican. Dissatisfied with his job, he becomes increasingly unnerved. While in the Army, Ken wrote a manuscript that he hopes will be published but it receives constant, disappointing rejections. At one point he states, "Every part of me is on those pages and every time it comes back, I die a little." Ken's family's dynamic is difficult and confrontational with his controlling, overbearing mother, Thelma contrasted by his rather meek father, John. Ken's untimely death gives his mother the unyielding desire to have his book manuscript published. Much of the emotionally charged story is told through the eyes of an adoring college student, Lisette.

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The cast of six completely masters the portrayal of their distinctive roles. The company includes Ryan Spahn as Ken; Linda Purl as Thelma; Julia Randall as Lisette; Stephen Schnetzer as John Toole; Thomas G. Waites as Arthur Ducoing; and John Ingle as Man in Bar and Walker Percy. The actors keep the play flowing seamlessly from scene to scene.

Toole is performed in 59E59's Theatre C, giving the audience an intimate perspective of the story. Memorable moments abound such as Lisette describing her infatuation with Ken; Ken and Lisette's quoting from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot; Ken receiving his first positive letter about the manuscript; Thelma and Ken fighting about his venturing out at night; Lisette presenting her paper to Ken; Ken and his father, John's special outing to identify the cars they see; Thelma and John grieving over Ken's death; Lisette coming to see Thelma and John after Ken's memorial service; Thelma's brother, Arthur coming to the nursing home to bring her to live with him; Arthur preparing pancakes for Thelma; and Thelma and Arthur approaching Walker Percy with Ken's manuscript.

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The Creative Team has done a marvelous job of bringing Toole to the Upper East Side stage. They include scenic and video design by George Allison; costume design by Angela Harner; lighting design by kia rogers; and sound design by Morry Campbell. The Assistant Director/Producing Director is Tekla Gaughn; Dialect Coach, Charley Layton; Production Stage Manager, John Concannon; and Assistant Stage Manager/Props, Courtney Ferraro Smith. In particular, the video design works well for scene changes by bringing multiple settings to life.

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John Kennedy Toole has become a literary legend. His one novel has become an American classic that continues to influence modern readers with its insightful wit. Don't miss the chance to see Mr. Toole and be engaged with a story of life and times in the Big Easy.

Mr. Toole is produced by Articulate Theatre Company, in association with Lagniappe Productions, MR. It is being performed at 59E59 Theaters for a limited engagement through March 15. The Theaters are located at 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues. Run time of the show is approximately 110 minutes with no intermission. The performance schedule is Tuesday -Saturday at 7:30 pm; Sunday at 2:30 pm. There is an added performance on Saturday, March 7 at 2:30 pm. Single tickets are $25 ($20 for 59E59 Members). Tickets are available by calling the 59E59 Box Office at 646-892-7999 or by visiting

Photo Credit: Ken Howard


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