Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

A Confederacy of Dunces
Huntington Theatre Company

The Cast
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Expectations have been running high in two camps for the opening of the Huntington Theatre Company world premiere of A Confederacy of Dunces: fans of Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson in NBC's "Parks and Recreation" and cult-like followers who adore the 1960s Pulitzer Prize-winning book by John Kennedy Toole. As I hold membership in neither of the two groups, my own expectations were in line with what they often are when going to a Huntington production that happens to feature some well-known actors, mixed in with the heightened curiosity of seeing a brand new work. While I cannot say it would be a pleasure to meet Ignatius J. Reilly, he is a most unusual protagonist whose life story is a wild ride of misanthropy, solipsism, masturbation and unemployment, accompanied by a mélange of distinctive characters who represent the citizenry of the city of New Orleans.

Offerman seems perfectly cast as the larger-than-life Reilly, showing a great ability to deadpan his way through two-and-a-half hours of sketch comedy. His timing, vocal modulation, and physicality are in sync with the sight gags and sound effects, and he meets his match in theater pro Anita Gillette as his downtrodden mother Irene. She seamlessly travels her character's arc, one moment being overwhelmed by her mistreatment at the hands of her boorish son, the next moment feeling unburdened by the attention of a gentleman caller (a delightful Ed Peed). They stand atop a stellar cast of actors, several of whom play dual roles, and a couple of wonderful musicians (Wayne Barker, music director/pianist, and David L. Harris, trombonist) who really bring out the flavor of 1960s New Orleans as they play through the numerous scene breaks.

A Confederacy of Dunces was written in the 1960s by Toole, but was published posthumously in 1980, some eleven years after he committed suicide, thanks to the fierce advocacy of his mother. Adaptor and playwright Jeffrey Hatcher took on the challenge to find a version of Reilly that could work on the stage and allow audiences to connect with such an odious character. There is never a dull moment when Ignatius holds forth and we await his next verbal barrage, oftentimes with some of the most clever and unexpected language with an abundance of fifty-cent words that can fly over the heads of the dunces. Unfortunately, the level of enchantment is inconsistent and there are too many dull moments for a big chunk of scenes in the second act when Confederacy loses its focus and slips off the rails.

For a neophyte, the first act is surprising and refreshing, eliciting laughs in great measure as the set-up develops. Each character introduction brings new delights: Paul Melendy's dim, but sweet, Patrolman Mancuso; Talene Monahon's naive bar girl who aspires to be a stripper; Arnie Burton doubling as a speed-typing clerk and swishy bar patron; Steve Rosen playing a tough-talking police sergeant and a harried business owner; Stacey Yen plays the business owner's wife who frustrates him, as well as a petty purveyor of porn; Lusia Strus is a floozy with a big heart who takes Irene under her wing and gives her relationship advice; and Lonnie Farmer as the hot dog peddler who hires Ignatius to work off his debt. Stephanie DiMaggio disappears into her dual roles of the stormtrooper-like bar proprietor Lana Lee and the earthy, crunchy Myrna Minkoff who holds the key to Ignatius' heart. Julie Halston steals every scene she's in as Miss Trixie, the old woman who should have long since retired from the Levy Pants factory. With her shuffling gait, open-mouthed stare and disheveled attire, she's a cross between Tim Conway and Carol Burnett. Phillip James Brannon is fabulous as Burma Jones, apparently the one person of color the New Orleans P.D. chooses to arrest for no particular reason.

Regardless of how well the actors play these parts, that's a lot of characters to keep straight, and patience wanes when there are too many dangling threads to tie up in act two. Scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez uses fluid sets; with the actors rolling screens and furnishings on and off the stage, everything seems so busy. Conversely, there is a minimalist approach that includes projections (Sven Ortel), eschews props, and employs pantomime for mundane activities like eating, drinking and typing. Kudos to the company for perfectly syncing with Mark Bennett and Charles Coes' sound effects. Designer Scott Zielinski uses a lot of backlighting to good effect, and costumes by Michael Krass go a long way to help define the characters. Also on director David Esbjornson's creative team are local stalwarts Kelli Edwards (movement coach), Amelia Broome (dialect coach), and Ted Hewlett (fight choreographer).

Weeks before the show opened, the run was extended to December 20 due to popular demand. As of Tuesday, November 17, A Confederacy of Dunces became the second highest-grossing show in the Huntington Theatre Company's 33-year history, behind their 2013 hit production of The Jungle Book.

A Confederacy of Dunces, performances through December 20, 2015, at Huntington Theatre Company, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-266-0800 or

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 Co-Design, Mark Bennett & 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; Production Stage Manager, Emily F. McMullen; Stage Manager, Kevin Schlagle

Cast (in order of appearance): Nick Offerman, Paul Melendy, Ed Peed, Anita Gillette, Wayne Barker, Talene Monahon, Arnie Burton, Stephanie DiMaggio, Phillip James Brannon, Steve Rosen, Stacey Yen, Julie Halston, Lusia Strus, Lonnie Farmer, David L. Harris

- Nancy Grossman

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