Nick Offerman stars in A Confederacy of Dunces, directed by David Esbjornson, at Huntington Theatre Company.
Nick Offerman stars in A Confederacy of Dunces, directed by David Esbjornson, at Huntington Theatre Company.
(© Shayd Johnson)

It's no wonder that many have tried to transform John Kennedy Toole's cult novel A Confederacy of Dunces into a production for the stage. With Ignatius J. Reilly, the girth-challenged, self-aggrandizing, sloth-like antihero, at its center, amid a series of chaotic confrontations between the wildly eccentric characters populating New Orleans' French Quarter in the 1960s, the richly comedic book seemed both ripe for a stage interpretation and yet impossible to wrestle to the boards.

However, the intrepid Huntington Theatre Company helped commission veteran playwright Jeffrey Hatcher to adapt Toole's book and David Esbjornson to direct the project, now running in its world premiere. Appearing as Ignatius, Nick Offerman (TV's Parks and Recreation) is the not-so-secret weapon for the production, which hopes to move to Broadway.

The play opens with a mimed scene showing Offerman in his underwear being lifted into a fat suit, dressed in a well-worn, woodsman's costume, topped by a green huntsman's cap. Ignatius, an overeducated, intellectual snob, at age 30 has never held a job. While waiting in town one day for his mother, Irene, Ignatius sets off a near riot by insulting dumbhead Patrolman Mancuso (Paul Melendy) for accosting him, involving the passers-by and an innocent elderly man, Claude Robichaux (Ed Peed), who is hauled off to the jailhouse after he calls Mancuso a communist. Robichaux meets the jive-talking Burma Jones (Phillip James Brannon), who has been warned to get a job or he'll be locked up for vagrancy.

Meanwhile, Ignatius is rescued by his faithful but increasingly agitated mother, Irene (Anita Gillette). On their way home, she backs the car into a building (loud crashing from the evocative sound design by Mark Bennett and Charles Coes). While Ignatius would typically stay holed up in his room to write his magnum opus about the decline of civilization, after the accident Irene orders him to find work to pay off the damages. With pungent musical riffs from trombonist (David L. Harris) and pianist (Wayne Barker) to accompany the multiple scene changes, the episodes of Ignatius's career unfold. His last great scheme is to plan a march for peace by enlisting the gays of the area to unite and save the world. Along the way we are treated to manic appearances by Arnie Burton as both the downtrodden, office manager at Ignatius's first job, Levy's Pants Factory, and a swishy denizen of the streets, and Julie Halston as the hilarious, very senior citizen, Miss Trixie.

Punctuating the action as a defiant but needy presence, his ex-girlfriend and most unlikely deux ex machina from the Bronx, Myrna Minkoff (Stephanie DiMaggio), reads her letters to Ignatius, and helps tie up the plotlines at the end.

The audience was gleefully engaged by the production, but those who have read the novel might be disappointed by the flattening of Toole's imaginative odyssey. Hatcher took a saw rather than a razor blade to the layers of the author's language, changing the story from a Don Quixote-like quest against the foibles of society into a double romance with a happy ending. Moreover, he gave Ignatius a veneer of sweetness and imminent reform that was certainly not Toole's intention. Luckily, the entire cast of Dunces is excellent, and Offerman is especially unforgettable. But there's retooling that needs to occur before a future life for this play.