By Stanford Friedman
It is fitting that Vivian Neuwirth’s new one act, Mr. Toole, arrives in New York riding a heat wave. It’s one of those hothouse memory plays set in New Orleans featuring characters with rich, Southern drawls. Not one of them will find what they want until much too late. Not the pretty coed suffering from unrequited love. Not the tortured writer whose gift for comedy would one day make him famous. Not the pushy mother who could drive a guy crazy. And not her husband who indeed would have been driven crazy, had dementia not gotten to him first. And it’s a shame that this is a short run, just five showings, ending July 31. As poignant and enjoyable as this production is, a couple more weeks of getting everything right would have resulted in a truly heartbreaking work. Then again, a sudden ending is what this play is built around.
Lisette (Laura Butler) is hot for teacher. As a student at Dominican College, her steamy poetry prof is a far cry from the nuns who teach her other classes. That teacher turns out to be none other than novelist John Kennedy Toole (Todd d’Amour), the author of A Confederacy of Dunces who, famously, killed himself before his book was published to great acclaim. With Lisette serving as our narrator, the play spans the years 1969 to 1981, interweaving her memories with Toole’s frustrations over having his work rejected, and his relationship with his hard driving mother, Thelma (Brenda Currin), and easy going but unstable father, John (Richard Vernon).
Ms. Neuwirth knows of what she writes since she once was, in real life, a student of Mr. Toole’s. Beyond laying out the basic facts of his life and death, she imagines what his family and personal life must have looked like, and it is a complicated sight. She shows clever restraint in giving us just one scene with him out on the town, in the company of another man. Lisette never understands why he rejected her advances and she is left nearly as haunted as her beloved. Thelma, meanwhile, is firmly in Tennessee Williams territory. Manipulative and nagging, then devastated and enraged at the loss of her son, she has several stinging moments. She mourns to her husband, “I’m not a widow, I’m not an orphan. Not even in French is there a word for what I am. That’s how unnatural it is.” And when she takes up the cause to publish Toole’s book posthumously, after blaming New York literary editors for her son’s suicide, she brings the work to Percy Walker (John Ingle) who tries to help with her grief. Pointing at the manuscript he tells her, “That’s not the answer.” She replies, “That’s the revenge.”
Cat Parker, with an ear toward the poetic, directs an impeccably cast ensemble. Mr. d’Amour, a dead ringer for Joaquin Phoenix, brings a focused intensity to Toole, making him, at once, sexy and eerie. Though one wonders where he found the sense of humor to create one of the funniest literary characters ever (If you haven’t read Confederacy, you should.). Butler’s Listte is soft spoken and always on the border between hopeful and forlorn. You love to hate Currin’s Thelma. At times, it is hard to tell if her drawn out rambling is just the actor struggling with her lines, but no matter, it works. Mr. Vernon is in fine form as the father victimized by his circumstances and Lou Liberatore shows up late in the production as Thelma’s brother, Arthur, a lagniappe to this Nawlins feast.
The set consists of several large video monitors projecting scenes of Toole’s house, classroom and neighborhood. At the matinee I attended, a ghost in the machine shorted out the projections during the final scene, with the words “no signal” flashing across all the screens in, perhaps, a spooky greeting from beyond.
Mr. Toole – by Vivian Neuwirth, directed by Cat Parker.
WITH: Laura Butler (Lisette), Brenda Currin (Thelma Toole), Todd d’Amour (John Kennedy Toole), John Ingle (Walker Percy), Lou Liberatore (Arthur Ducoing) and Richard Vernon (John Toole).
Set design by George Allison, lighting design by Kia Rogers, video and sound design by Eric Siegel and George Allison, costume design by Aileen Abercrombie; production stage manager, Earline Stephen; stage manager, Becky Abromowitz. The Midtown International Theatre Festival at the WorkShop Theater Company, 312 West 36th Street, 4th Floor, web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/960364, 866-811-4111. Through July 31. Running time: 90 minutes.