John Kennedy Toole (1937-1969) was the author of posthumously published (1979) A Confederacy of Dunces which garnered the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Playwright Vivian Neuwirth was one of his students at St. Mary’s Dominican College in New Orleans where he was much admired.
Toole committed suicide by running a garden hose from the exhaust pipe into a window of his car. His suicide note was described as rambling and crazed. Neuwirth suggests that failure to get published/creative acceptance was the reason, though being gay in the south and cohabiting with a suffocating mother (he lived with his parents at age 31) might’ve contributed to an unbalanced mind. Mr. Toole is a love poem to the author and, secondarily, to the mother who doggedness finally brought her son’s work to light.
Without exploration as to the subject’s actual motivation, the play is flat. Multiple quotes from T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock are meant to parallel Toole’s angst. (The stream of consciousness poem describes modern man’s impotence and isolation.) Does Neuwirth particularly recall his teaching the poem? Here, she’s represented by the obsessed Lisette (Julia Randall – lacking personality) who develops a relationship with her teacher’s mother after his passing.
Construction is hodge-podge. We jerk from here to there and, after death, from now to then and back. (Toole hovers.) Neuwirth gives equal weight to almost every scene and unnecessarily repeats information. Overlong at an hour fifty, the piece needs editing and rethinking.
Acting, except for John Ingle’s appearances as Toole’s bar friend and later, the author Walker Percy, is not believable. Ingle brings naturalness and ballast to the stage.
Linda Purl (mother, Thelma Toole) is all surface technique. Husband John, Stephen Schnetzer, enacted as mentally impaired, is blank. I have no knowledge as to whether the man’s diminished capacity is accurate, but defined persona is absent. (Toole’s state might’ve been hereditary.)
Thomas G. Waites (Thelma’s brother, Arthur) has genuinely sympathetic passages, but little to play against. Ryan Spahn (John Kennedy Toole) seems consistently vague. It’s as if the performer is trying to present internal turmoil, but can’t figure out how. Perhaps he’d be fine with a different director.
Director Cat Parker does a wrong-headed play no service by allowing players to be underdeveloped. Accents are inconsistent and quite terrible. (Dialect Coach Charley Layton)
Video paneled set by George Allison works well to indicate where, without being obtrusive, like so much theatrical video use these days.
Angela Harner’s costumes fit scenario and character.
Photos by Ken Howard
Opening: Ryan Spahn as John Kennedy Toole
Articulate Theatre Company, in association with Lagniapp presents
Mr. Toole by Vivian Neuwirth
Directed by Cat Parker
59E 59 Theaters
Through March 15, 2020