By Vivian Neuwirth
Directed by Cat Parker
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“Do I dare/Disturb the universe?/In a minute there is time/For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
After a successful run at the Huntington Theatre in Boston, “A Confederacy of Dunces” is possibly heading to Broadway. John Kennedy Toole’s picaresque novel was published in 1980 eleven years after his suicide and the novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction posthumously in 1981. What an auspicious time to bring to the stage a new play that focuses on the life of John Kennedy Toole and the publishing of his now iconic novel.
Playwright Vivian Neuwirth was Toole’s student at St. Mary’s Dominican College in New Orleans and the events of her play “Mr. Toole” are inspired by that experience. In her play Lisette (Laura Butler) a fictional student of Mr. Toole (Todd d’Amour) – at St. Mary’s in New Orleans – confesses her love for her teacher and narrates the story of how the script for his novel eventually got published after his untimely death.
Ms. Neuwirth uses an engaging trope to encapsulate the life of John Kennedy Toole – T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Mr. Toole teaches Eliot’s poem, the poem that parallels his own struggles with self-worth and self-understanding and his efforts to “dare” to disturb the universe which is his domineering and manipulative mother Thelma Toole (Brenda Currin) who refuses to accept his sexual status and blocks her son’s every effort to separate from her and individuate in the privacy of his own space. Todd d’Amour delivers an authentic and honest performance as Toole and successfully portrays the novelist’s deep longing and hunger for acceptance. His performance is the anchor for this production and provides the soul needed to capture Toole’s depression and deep sadness.
Mr. Toole tries unsuccessfully to get his novel published by Simon and Schuster and much of the play revolves around the series of rejection letters he receives, his attempts to travel to New York City to work with the publisher, and his disappointment at his mother’s insistence that he remain in New Orleans and keep his teaching position to support her and his father John (Richard Vernon) who apparently shows signs of dementia.
The play uses flashbacks to Toole’s childhood as well as scenes at St. Mary’s, Toole’s home, the bars frequented by Toole in New Orleans, and Thelma Toole’s brother Arthur Ducoing’s (Lou Liberatore) home. George Allison’s scenic design features five LED screens that function well to establish these settings.
Director Cat Parker keeps the action moving early on in the performance, but seems to falter near the end when things begin to wobble and it is not clear whether Ms. Currin and John Ingle (who plays the writer Walker Percy who is eventually responsible for publishing Toole’s novel) are having difficulty with their lines or were not given helpful direction in rehearsal. Their important scene together in Percy’s office is not as powerful as it needs to be nor is the play’s final scene with Lisette when the LED screens seem to fail.
That said, “Mr. Toole” is an interesting look into the life of an iconic figure in American Literature and deserves a look at the Midtown International Theatre Festival.