Next to Falstaff, Ignatius J. Reilly may be the largest larger-than-life character ever written. But unlike Falstaff, who is happy to indulge his gargantuan appetites in a tavern of his time, buoyed by the occasional highway robbery, the protagonist of John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” deplores his era — the early 1960s, amid the flotsam and jetsam of New Orleans — and stubbornly adheres to a worldview that precedes the Reformation. The only thing he would add to martyred sixth-century exemplar Boethius’ “The Consolation of Philosophy” would be the consolations of bloviating, masturbation and hot dogs.
Of course, Reilly was not written for the stage but for the page. And it has taken a long time and no little ingenuity to wrestle Toole’s pretentious, pugnacious, unhygienic bag of avoirdupois — antihero of the novelist’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winner — under the spotlight. But this sweetly riotous Huntington Theatre Company world premiere proves that a transfer of a work whose cinematic possibilities have (so far) eluded the likes of John Waters and Steven Soderbergh is indeed possible. Not perfect, perhaps, but immensely entertaining, occasionally tender and shimmering with the colors of New Orleans.
“A Confederacy of Dunces” was penned in the early ‘60s and remained unpublished at the time of the author’s suicide in 1969. His mother persisted until she got the writer Walker Percy to read the thing. He helped to get it published by Louisiana State University Press, whereupon it not only won the Pulitzer but became a cult classic. Its title is taken from mega-satirist Jonathan Swift’s observation that “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”
If Ignatius J. Reilly is a genius, he is one as much bamboozled by his own obstreperousness as by idiots. And what adapter Jeffrey Hatcher, director David Esbjornson and actor Nick Offerman (late of TV’s “Parks and Recreation”) have done is to make him lovable without totally eradicating his grossness, arrogance, condescension or cruelty. Moreover, Offerman’s timing proves far more precise than his lumbering appearance.
But even if Toole’s Rabelaisian protagonist hadn’t been softened and made almost cute in his hulking fat suit and trademark hunting cap, this pompous verbal assassin might prove easier to take over two and a half hours than in the long course of a picaresque, discursive novel that, though marvelous and quirky, could stand to be less of a ramble. Here most of the jokes are retained along with the rambunctious satire, but they are not run into the swampy ground. Also, Hatcher has done some telescoping toward the end that leaves the episodic work with at least one less episode.
But another key to the production’s success is that it makes seedy, joyful native New Orleans a co-star — one presented less literally than impressionistically. Ignatius, too, however dominant his presence and however too-too solid his faux flesh, is revealed as a construct. The play opens on a bare stage, a single figure facing upstage as trombonist David L. Harris launches into “Basin Street Blues.” Revealed to be Offerman, the figure is then transformed by cast mates into the outlandish persona of Ignatius, his body lifted into a fat suit and accessorized with gargantuan pants, lumberjack shirt, comparatively tiny scarf, and muted green cap with earflaps. Then the newly minted character again turns his back — to vigorously scratch his butt crack.
In Riccardo Hernandez’ design, “Confederacy” is played on a stage largely unadorned, except by Scott Zielinski’s lighting and Sven Ortel’s gauzy projections. Transitions are lively, marked by scooting screens and a sound design that mixes eras and styles of New Orleans-style music, from banged-out solo piano (Wayne Barker is the able instrumentalist) to zydeco to the Preservation Hall-worthy jazz parade that not only transforms a labor protest into a party but effectively ends the first act.
Michael Krass’ colorful costumes, on the other hand, run the early-‘60s gamut from skintight capris and flimsy housedresses to straw hats and gay-wear that would ring the chimes of Harvey Fierstein. Props, in their entirety, are abandoned in favor of sound effects, including Ignatius’ gulping down of seven hot dogs in a single speech.
The story, for those unfamiliar with the novel, begins with a traumatic encounter involving an arrest, a car crash and a dive bar. A result of these events is that Ignatius — after eight years of college and a few more holed up in his bedroom, emerging only to gobble, belch and tyrannize his cowed mother — is unleashed upon the workplace, first at a moribund operation called Levy Pants, then as a purveyor of franks in the French Quarter. Various citizens, kindly and corrupt, get caught in the character’s commanding if disaster-prone orbit until possibilities of imprisonment, Bedlam and salvation loom.
The novel also includes protracted letters from Ignatius to an imagined reader, here excised, and a furious correspondence with ex-quasi-girlfriend Myrna Minkoff, soulful bits of which remain and are performed à la A.R. Gurney.
Nowhere do Hatcher or Esbjornson let the anarchic doings bog down, though the climax involving a stripper and her cockatoo may prove incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with the book. It starts well, if chaotically, with the cockatoo presented in silhouette as if perched on a character’s arm. But then the projection screen fills with looming beaked birds and unspecific rumpus ensues. Some reference to the glinting earring that caps Ignatius’s pirate drag might help.
Frankly, I had worried that if the Political Correctness Police got hold of it, any adaptation of Toole’s pre-PC novel would be reduced to the size of a haiku. But the caricature is both catholic and even-handed: Sure, the “color peoples” have their patois, but so do the white ones. Only Ignatius, issuing from above his enormous waistband his stilted pronouncements and flowery disdain, speaks stentorian English.
But the Huntington ensemble is so expert that all but Toole’s most extreme comic characters are rendered as touching as they are wacky. (This is partly due to Hatcher’s adaptation, which tends to airbrush Toole’s more harshly rendered tawdriness.) Anita Gillette is particularly affecting as Ignatius’ abused mother, Irene, whom Toole paints as an aging floozy for all her newfound support group, boyfriend and backbone. Gillette’s Irene is more Blanche DuBois than muscatel-fueled Edith Bunker.
As Burma Jones, a black man caught between a vagrancy charge and domestic exploitation by pornographers, Phillip James Brannon exudes as much joie de vivre as deadpan cool. Julie Halston, her gray hair in barrettes and her knobby legs in a permanent bow, growls out of a permanent fog as the ancient but snappish Miss Trixie. Among the double-castees, of whom there are several, Arnie Burton displays fey flair as dawn-of-the-‘60s homosexual Dorian Greene and uncanny elasticity as Levy Pants office manager Mr. Gonzalez.
Paul Melendy’s Patrolman Mancuso, whether working undercover as a “bearded circus boy” or a nun in green socks, seems to embody not the hangdog cop of the novel but the upbeat outlook more characteristic of the theater piece. In the end, Ignatius not only escapes his Louisiana rut for a new life. Contemptuous of all things modern, including the music of a culture breaking free of constraints regional, racial, sexual and political, he even gets his madrigal.
"A Confederacy of Dunces" plays at Huntington Theatre Company through Dec. 20.
Carolyn Clay was for many years the theater editor and chief drama critic for the Boston Phoenix. She is a past winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.