Huntington’s life of Reilly is hugely entertaining
BOSTON – Expectations were high for Nick Offerman in bringing the character of Ignatius J. Reilly to the stage in Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces,” at the Huntington Theatre Company.
Many had pronounced the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “unstageable.” The good news is that Hatcher – anchored by Offerman’s performance but aided and abetted by a slew of fine supporting efforts – has been able to distill the novel into a cogent 150 minutes of theater .
Does it get a little unwieldy late in the game? Perhaps, but it is never less than entertaining and exceedingly funny and that’s not a bad place to be.
It’s obvious Offerman, who starred as Ron Swanson “Parks and Recreation,” thought long and hard about the role. He himself described the voice he’s concocted for Ignatius as that of “a loudly whining baby,”with a distinctive timbre that sounds a bit like the late comic Jackie Gleason’s Reggie Van Gleason III character.
The decision was made to allow theater-goers to watch Offerman be loaded into his costume, including the “fat suit,” the oversized tweed pants, the plaid flannel shirt, unlaced boots, suspenders, muffler and hunter’s cap – flaps down, of course.
You can’t help but thinking what might be happening under that eclectic ensemble during a hot humid New Orleans summer circa 1962, or just what was crawling around on the DNA-loaded bedsheet Ignatius carefully kept away from his exasperated widowed mother Irene (a wonderful Anita Gillette), desperate for some financial support from her son.
Ignatius has managed a master’s degree after eight years of college, but at the age of 30 is still living at home, writing a few words here and there on his magnus opus, which he describes to Officer Mancuso (deftly played by Paul Melendy) thusly: “At present I am writing a lengthy indictment against our century.”
Ignatius has had an early confrontation with Mancuso, whom he sees as someone “who tried to arrest me for being interesting.”
Mancuso, meanwhile, then finds himself assigned to undercover duty pursuing perverts around the city – of which there are no shortage, this being New Orleans.
Melendy’s Mancuso is one of many artfully crafted portrayals of the denizens of New Orleans who revolve in orbit around Ignatius, as he sneers at the mere mortals who bedevil him, fire him, mock him or – egads – ask him to work.
He manages to talk about work with the same disdain as the late Bob Denver as Maynard G. Krebs did on the old “Dobie Gillis” TV show (look it up on Youtube, younger folks).
“I’m on sabbatical,” he answers about a different inquiry on his work status.
Ignatius’ serious aversion to work is only sharpened by his adventures at the Levy Pants Factory,
where Julie Halston is a hoot as the out-of-it Miss Trixie, a too-longtime employee of Levy Pants who takes a liking to Ignatius.
Arnie Burton stands out in two very distinctly different roles as Mr. Gonzalez, trying to hold together the Levy Pants Factory during an employee insurrection led by Ignatius, and as the flamboyant Dorian Green (pun very much intended), who is part of a gay-led invasion of the Night of Joy nightclub during which Ignatius addresses his assembled troops with the greeting: “Attention, Sodomites.”
Lusia Strus is Santa Battaglia, Mancuso’s brassy girlfriend who leads the charge to mold a new life for Irene and urges her to have Ignatius shipped off to the funny farm via an involuntary commitment.
Phillip James Brannon is a black sweeper named Burma Jones who dreams of making minimum wage – this is 1962 New Orleans, after all – and serves as a one-man cynical Greek Chorus as chaos reigns around him at the Night of Joy.
Stephanie DiMaggio is porn purveyor Lana Lee at the Night of Joy, where Talene Monahan is a B-girl and would-be stripper named Darlene who is training a cockatoo to remove her clothing during the act.
DiMaggio returns as a delightful Mryna Minkoff, Ignatius’ longtime on/off girlfriend with a bent for liberal causes.
Locally-based Ed Peed is a wonderful Claude Robichaux, a grandfather who sticks up for Ignatius during his early bout with Mancuso and ends up arrested himself. He later comes a-calling for Irene’s hand, oozing Southern charm, and armed with a valuable commodity: A railroad pension and possible financial security.
Offerman makes each of Ignatius’s pronouncements a theatrical event of the first order. Perhaps the funniest story is the one time Ignatius ventured beyond the city limits of New Orleans “in a Scenic Cruiser” to explore a teaching job in Baton Rouge. “During the ride I vomited many times,” he recalled matter-of-factly before retreating permanently to the Big Easy.
Riccardo Hernandez’s collection of moving screens and props allow action to move quickly around the city.
Pianist Wayne Barker and trombonist David L. Harris offers bits of New Orleans jazz with original music by Mark Bennett to garnish the Crescent City atmosphere.
Director David Esbjornson and adapter Hatcher have had to walk an incredibly fine line in taming the iconic book and shoehorning it within the bounds of a traditional stage play.
They have largely succeeded. Before the first reviews had been published, the production already was on track to become the highest-grossing show in Huntington history.
With a few tweaks here and there, Offerman and Ignatius are bound to find their way to another stage quite soon.
The Huntington Theatre Company production of “A Confederacy of Dunces.” Adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel by John Kennedy Toole. Directed by David Esbjornson. Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez. Costume design by Michael Krass. Lighting design by Scott Zielinski. Sound design by Mark Bennett and Charles Coes. At the BU Theatre through Dec. 20. huntingtontheatre.org.