Anyone who’s read (not me) and admired A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, picaresque novel of 1980, much of it about New Orleans, should be interested in Vivian Neuwirth’s semi-autobiographical drama, Mr. Toole, directed by Cat Parker, now being offered by the Articulate Theatre Company at 59E59 Theaters.
|Ryan Spahn. All photos: Ken Howard.
|Linda Purl, Julia Randall, Stephen Schnetzer.
Mr. Toole is not so much about the book, whose contents are not discussed, but about the back story of the book’s publication, as told largely through the memories of Lisette (Julia Randall), a student at an all-girl’s Catholic college in New Orleans, where Toole (Ryan Spahn) taught. The literary work the play actually examines, to a degree, is T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which Toole lectures on and which expresses elements of Kennedy’s personality.
Neuwirth, who was fascinated by Toole ("He had such theatrical flair"), was inspired to write the play when she came across his novel in a bookstore window and “took it home and devoured it.” She describes the writer’s strained but loving relationships with his troubled father, John (Stephen Schnetzer), and, more dramatically, his emotionally colorful mother, Thelma (Linda Purl). His mostly painful encounters with her are sometimes reminiscent of those between Tom and Amanda in The Glass Menagerie.
Central to the nearly two hour, intermissionless story is the difficulty Toole had in finding a publisher, his struggle to satisfy the demands of Robert Gottlieb, his editor at Simon and Schuster, his resulting suicide when the book was rejected, and his mother’s determination to get it published posthumously, which she did through the intercession of famous writer Walker Percy (John Ingle).
For personal reasons, I’m refraining from further comments on the play and production, and suggest you look elsewhere for reviews. (Several other critics were there when I went.) I will add, however, that one critic I briefly spoke to afterward told me she was “stunned” by the play, particularly the depiction of the mother-son relationship. I’ll also confess that, had I the time, I’d immediately get a copy of A Confederacy of Dunces to see what Simon and Schuster missed and Louisiana State University Press found in a book so admired it won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize.
Interestingly, so many projected film versions of the book have been canceled that director Stephen Soderbergh, who headed one such project, declared it “cursed.” On the other hand, Jeffrey Hatcher’s financially successful theatre adaptation starring Nick Offerman played in Boston in 2015. Hopefully, it will come one day to New York so, if I never find the time to read it, I can stop being such a dunce and get a better idea of what all the fuss is about.
59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through March 15