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‘Dunces’ on stage widely anticipated

Nick Offerman to star in Huntington Theatre Company production

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

‘Dunces’ on stage widely anticipated
Jeffrey Hatcher, Nick Offerman and David Esbjornson. (Photo: Photo courtesy of the Huntington Theatre Company)

Few Boston stage productions are as eagerly anticipated as the Huntington Theatre Company’s world premiere of “A Confederacy of Dunces,” which opens November 18 at the Boston University Theatre. Previews begin November 11 and its run already has been extended by a week, to December 20.

Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by John Kennedy Toole and directed by David Esbjornson, the production features Nick Offerman (Ron Swanson in NBC’s “Parks and Recreation”) in the lead role of Ignatius J. Reilly, a scholarly, overweight slacker who lives with his mother in 1960s New Orleans.

When his mother backs her car into another automobile, Ignatius has to get a job and help her pay the damages — a venture that launches him on a series of adventurous encounters with a swath of New Orleans characters, and, eventually, a life of his own.

Best seller

A tragicomedy steeped in the jambalaya of the Crescent City, Toole’s novel has gained fans far beyond New Orleans. More than 3.5 million copies in some two dozen languages have been sold since it was published by the Louisiana State University Press in 1980, winning the Pulitzer Prize the following year.

Yet the novel almost did not come into the world. A beloved but troubled soul whose inability to find a publisher added to his suffering, Toole committed suicide in 1969. A decade later, Toole’s mother pressed eminent Southern novelist Walker Percy to read the novel. Much to his surprise, Percy declared it a masterpiece, and found a publisher. “Surely it was not possible that it was so good,” Percy wrote in a preface to its 20th anniversary edition, describing Ignatius as “a slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one — who is in violent revolt against the entire modern age.”

At a recent press conference, Hatcher, Esbjornson and Offerman spoke of transforming Toole’s teeming novel into a two-hour play.

Six years ago, Hatcher began adapting the novel, which progresses as a series of episodes and brims with odd characters. “While wrestling with the book, we didn’t want to tame its spirit,” said Hatcher, who found the relationship between Ignatius and his mother core to distilling its story.

Not unlike Tom in “Glass Menagerie,” a figure playwright Tennessee Williams modeled on himself, Ignatius has to leave his mother and New Orleans to get on with his life. “The sequence of events that get Ignatius to leave becomes our story,” says Hatcher. “To go on to the next thing, Ignatius has to tear things apart with her and leave the city once and for all. In the process, he interacts with all these other characters that circle like a carnival around him. He changes most of their lives for the better.”

Yet Ignatius is an unlikely hero, a slob as well as a scholar, arrogant and self-absorbed, overweight and underemployed. Hatcher adds, “At end of day, because of what Nick brings to the role of Ignatius, the audience is going to be extremely attracted to him.”

Demonstrating the droll humor he brought to his role as Ron Swanson, the cynical boss in “Parks and Recreation,” a grinning Offerman said, “The way things are going if I play my cards right, I think I can roll this play right into a GOP candidacy.”

As Ron Swanson, Offerman, 46, sported a smooth coif and a Tom Selleck-style mustache. Here, the actor looked athletic and outdoorsy with his grey-flecked beard, flannel shirt, jeans and boots. He spoke of coming up in the ‘90s as an actor in small and mid-sized theaters in Chicago and then in Los Angeles, where he met his wife, actress Megan Mullally (Karen in “Will and Grace”), whose photograph he displayed on a large button pinned to his chest.

Putting on weight

Transformation into his vastly overweight character began early in the year. Describing his “first fat suit fitting” back in April, Offerman said, “I was accosted by five ladies with measuring tape and burst into tears—they were joyful tears.”

Speaking of how he approached the role of messy, vulnerable Ignatius after seven years playing a gruff bureaucrat, Offerman said, “I’m known for playing stentorian, insensitive men. Ignatius is a simpering fop. That is completely what is in my heart. I’m all fop. I can pretty easily tap into the part of the human condition Ignatius represents. In truth, we all have within us this whiney child whose dog died.”

The novel takes its title from an essay by 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift, who wrote, “When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.”

Ignatius encounters a host of oddballs as he takes to the streets, notes Director David Esbjornson, who said, “We must create the most disparate and interesting and eccentric cast possible because there are all these New Orleans dunces who surround the main character, who is arrogant, feels superior and is overweight, farts and belches — and is also an incredibly funny character. Yet there’s a kind of more delicate and sad little story inside all of that. What makes a person be like this?”

Offerman relishes the flaws and excesses of Ignatius, whose appearance and behavior tend to turn people off. “Because I was not born cute,” said Offerman, “I’ve often been cast as a character who is not sympathetic at first glance, doesn’t have a attractive façade. I love nothing more than playing the bad guy and seeing if I can make the audience love the human inside.”

But Offerman won’t smooth out the wrinkles in his character. “I don’t think about steering audience sympathies,” said Offerman. “There are times that Ignatius should be delightful. Other times, he rubs you the wrong way.”

Ignatius is a larger-than-life comic role, but his humanity also captivates Offerman. “Part of the human condition is that we are always a mewling baby crying for our mother’s teat,” said Offerman. “We want to move closer to the fire. Socialization is partly learning to bury those emotions and needs and get on with our taxes.”

Reflecting on his character’s inner “fop,” Offerman said, “So many conflicts come down to the fact that we need more love, in some way. And we have different tactics in how we come to scream for or beg others for that love. Ignatius unbeknownst to himself wears those needs very much on his sleeve. And with every affectation he’s crying out to be loved even though he is a very strange genius and clearly holds himself apart from the abject idiots he is surrounded by.”