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Bringing 'Confederacy of Dunces' alive onstage

Boston's Huntington Theatre Company has adapted John Kennedy Toole's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Can the unusual story be brought to the stage in a way that will appeal to book fans and newbies?

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    'A Confederacy of Dunces' stars Nick Offerman.
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Can a famous novel that elicits “I love it!” shouts from some and “I don’t get it” shrugs from others become a hit play? Especially when its story is more about exploring eccentric characters and wandering weird narrative cul-de-sacs than clearly getting the plot from Point A to Point B?

Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company is finding out. From Nov. 11 to Dec. 20 “A Confederacy of Dunces,” based on the 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by John Kennedy Toole, is inviting audiences to explore the world of a menagerie of oddball characters inhabiting New Orleans’ French Quarter. The casting of Nick Offerman (Ron Swanson on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation”) as the lead character, Ignatius J. Reilly, does add a note of familiarity for audiences. But as Ignatius he’s hidden inside a fat suit – and bringing to life a not-so-lovable character.

Ignatius is “the guy you want your audience to hold onto,” says director David Esbjornson, explaining one of the challenges of mounting the play. “He’s also an incredibly funny character.”

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Jeffrey Hatcher, the playwright who adapted the book for the stage, says one key was finding an analogue for Ignatius in the world of theater. Commentary on the novel has compared Ignatius to Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Mr. Hatcher even sees a bit of the outlandish Sheridan Whiteside from the classic 1939 play “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”

Reviews of the play have generally effused over Offerman’s tragicomic performance while Variety called the production as a whole “flamboyant, overstuffed” and “at times, fascinating and fun.”

Hatcher says he read the book “a couple of times,” making notes (“Can use this”) and circling passages. Then he set it aside, knowing that the play needed a life of its own.

He realizes some fans of the book may be dissatisfied with his adaptation. He has a ready answer: “Go [re]read the book. It’s still there.”

The “Dunces” book “is near and dear to me as a lifelong weirdo and fan of the counterculture…,” says Offerman, who is best known for his TV work but also has long experience doing live theater in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

The prospect of playing a sometimes obnoxious character doesn’t bother him. “Since I wasn’t born cute,” he says, he’s often been cast as unsympathetic characters who “at first glance, don’t have an attractive facade.”

The key for him is that “the character is very well drawn” in the book, Offerman says. “It’s easy to understand where he’s coming from and why he is this way.”

Beneath Ignatius’s comic excesses “there’s also a more delicate and sad little story inside,” adds director Esbjornson. “What makes a person be like this? What creates this individual?”

"Confederacy of Dunces" is off to a fast start at the box office. On Nov. 18 the theater announced that it had already become the second-highest-grossing show in the company’s 33-year history, with four more weeks of performances still ahead.

Along with adapting an iconic book into a play, Huntington Theatre is facing another challenge: potential homelessness. Boston University, which owns the building that houses Huntington’s main stage, has announced that it is selling the property. Huntington is attempting to find a new partner or partners in order to buy the building, which is also in need of costly renovations.

Some 130,000 people are expected to see Huntington shows this season at both its main stage and at its smaller second stage, the Calderwood Pavilion, located several blocks away in Boston's South End neighborhood. 

[Editor's note: The original version misstated the number of people expected to see productions at the Huntington Theatre this season.]

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