If you have heard of John Kennedy Toole at all, you might know that his novel A Confederacy of Dunces was published posthumously 11 years after he committed suicide and was awarded the 1981 Pulitzer Prize, becoming a cult classic. This is the one fact that has become a footnote to American literature.
Vivian Neuwirth’s biographical tribute, Mr. Toole, is a fascinating but cluttered account of this story. However, without program notes or previous knowledge the play will leave many theatergoers at sea as the novel is not mentioned until at least halfway through the play. As it happens, the plwywright was a literature student of Toole’s in New Orleans and she found him an amazing teacher. How much of the rest of the play is true is another question.
Mr. Toole is told as a memory play much like Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie which also used a narrator who steps in and out of the action and Ken (as he is called) has a similar relationship to his mother Thelma as did Tom Wingfield and his mother Amanda. A character named Lisette tells us that she was a student of Mr. Toole at St. Mary’s Dominican College, an all-girls dormitory academy. We then see John Kennedy Toole (known as Ken to his family as his father is also John) teaching T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to his mostly bored listeners (other than Lisette who is his best student). The choice is ironic for when we see him at home with his parents Thelma and John, he is much like Prufrock himself, as he also does not act on his desires, living a half life, and waiting on futile hope. What we discover he is living for is to get his New Orleans novel published and has found an interested reader in Robert Gottlieb, senior editor at Simon and Schuster in New York, which has given him hope.
Refusing to show his satiric and outrageous manuscript to his mother, he lives from letter to letter from publishers. Gottlieb at first requires changes, and then more changes, and then rejects the book outright for publication. Although his mother advises him to keep trying to find a publisher, Ken becomes despondent as all his dreams of leaving home and teaching are predicated on the book’s success. Ken’s scenes with Thelma at times resemble that of Edmund and Mary in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night as he tried to get her to own up to her pretensions and possessiveness, while his father slipping into dementia remains on the sidelines.
After Ken disappears and is found to have committed suicide in his car in Biloxi, Mississippi, his mother Thelma makes it her life’s work to get the manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces published as a memorial to her son. Lisette visits the family after a memorial at the college and befriends Thelma who is not entirely in touch with reality. Unfortunately, Thelma’s money and then health runs out before she can find a publisher. And then she reads in the local newspaper that award-winning New Orleans author Walker Percy is teaching creative writing at Tulane University and she vows to get the manuscript to him.
Aside from the fact that author Neuwirth keeps much information from the audience in the early part of the play, the story though interesting seems to go in too many directions: Ken’s teaching of literature at the college, Lisette’s hero worship of Mr. Toole, Ken’s fraught relationship with both his parents, his mother’s uneasy relationship with her brother Arthur which spills over onto his lack of communication with her son, and Ken’s refusal to give publishers what they are looking for in defending his book. Aside from painting a picture of a young man in his twenties still tied to his mother’s apron strings and living at home, a brief undeveloped scene suggests that Ken was a latent homosexual waiting to move out before starting his sexual life.
Nevertheless, under Cat Parker’s direction, the cast creates real people as far as the author has drawn them. Ryan Spahn’s Ken remains an enigma as a complex man who leaves a great deal unsaid. The play is mainly that of Linda Purl’s Thelma Toole, a cousin of Amanda Wingfield and Mary Tyrone. In her hands, Thelma is snobbish, compassionate, nosy, deceitful and loyal. As her looked down upon husband John, Stephen Schnetzer paints a fine picture of a man fading into dementia in Neuwirth’s sketchy portrait of him.
Thomas G. Waites’ Uncle Arthur is believable as a man who knows his sister despises him as a reminder of their humble beginnings and his continued lower class life but pursues her and her family despite her scorn. Julia Randall is passionate in the underwritten role of Lisette which ironically is based on the author’s time with Toole herself. John Ingle is rather low-key as both Ken’s mysterious friend he meets in a bar and later as courtly author Walker Percy.
George Allison is responsible for the unit set (the classroom, the kitchen, a bar, a nursing home, Walker Percy’s office) as well as the video projections of real scenes of New Orleans. Both make the scene changes swift and fluid. The costumes by Angela Harner immediately define the characters both to how they see themselves and as to how we see them. Kia Rogers’ lighting is immensely helped by the video projections which create most of the mood. Dialect coach Charley Layton has allowed the actors to use a very light New Orleans speech so that one often forgets that the setting is supposed to be the Deep South.
Vivian Neuwirth’s Mr. Toole is a fitting tribute to a charismatic teacher and a brilliant author. However, the play, in the form it currently is in, seems to have been shoehorned into a shape it doesn’t entirely want to take. It is possible that it would be more successful as a screenplay opened up a bit. At any rate, it is a play that will be of interest to students of American fiction and those who know the two novels of John Kennedy Toole. The play may do something in the way of making Toole and his work better known. It will probably make you want to read one or both of his two novels, A Confederacy of Dunces and The Neon Bible.
Mr. Toole (through March 11, 2020)
Articulate Theatre Company in association with Lagniappe Productions
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-892-7999 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: one hour and 55 minutes without an intermission