Theater Review - Aaron Muñoz delivers as Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces

Theatrical Outfit offers an awkward but generally pleasing world premiere production

“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of the head.” John Kennedy Toole began his beloved novel A Confederacy of Dunces like a cartographer surveying his mountainous anti-hero, Ignatius J. Reilly, from the peak to the foothills. Toole’s posthumous success turned Ignatius into an icon of comic fiction as a corpulent, mustachioed crank with hideous fashion sense, insolent manners and inflated belief in his own genius. Ignatius’ literary DNA includes Falstaff’s appetites and Don Quixote’s delusions, while he anticipates character types like the overeducated, underemployed slackers living with their parents found in any Kevin Smith film.

Dunces fans doubtless envision Ignatius as resembling whichever cover illustration adorns their dog-earned edition. Hollywood has tried to launch a Dunces film project for decades, linking the role to everyone from John Candy to Will Ferrell. Given Ignatius’ girth and superciliousness, I envision him as “The Simpsons’” Comic Book Guy, only less interested in Batman than sixth century Christian philosopher Boethius. Ignatius J. Reilly represents an Everest-sized challenge for a daring actor.

Plenty of familiar Atlanta performers have the comedic chops and, uh, substance to fill Ignatius’s hunting cap, butcher’s apron and pirate scarf. Theatrical Outfit casts relative newcomer Aaron Muñoz in a world premiere adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces by artistic director Tom Key. Muñoz rises to the comedic demands and audience preconceptions of the character and provides bedrock for an awkward but generally pleasing production.

A Confederacy of Dunces takes place in New Orleans in 1964, and the opening scene presents a microcosm of the plot to follow. Unlucky patrolman Mancuso (Scott Warren) accosts innocent Ignatius as a “suspicious character.” The confrontation turns into a massive, embarrassing scene involving all sorts of colorful passersby. Ignatius frequently serves as an accidental agent of chaos.

When his long-suffering mother (Kathleen McManus) wrecks her car, he sews more anarchy from within the workforce, whether as a file clerk at a pants factory or as a French Quarter hot dog vendor. Careening through New Orleans like a pinball, Ignatius imperceptibly nudges people out of their routines and sets them up for fates that will reward the good and punish the wicked.

Not that Ignatius has the historic importance that he believes. “I am writing a lengthy indictment of our century,” he sniffs, and though he disdains the decadence in nearly everything he sees, he doesn’t know how to drive and has a phobia of leaving his home city. Muñoz zestfully chews on Ignatius’ pompous vocabulary, but primarily conveys the character as a vulnerable example of arrested development. Given Ignatius’ force-of-nature impression on the page, Muñoz’s interpretation proves more poignant, but also more of a pushover.

Some of the book’s most ingenious passages present Ignatius’ hilariously unreliable diary entries: He describes a pampering supervisor like the black-hearted embodiment of capitalist exploitation. As the narrator, E. Roger Mitchell recites some of Toole’s prose, but his condescending chuckles make him a distracting figure. Theatrical Outfit’s adaptation focuses less on the book’s interior voice than its sprawling plot and characters. The production, directed by Georgia Shakespeare’s Richard Garner, features 16 actors, many of whom double up their roles, which can make the play dizzyingly complicated if you don’t know the book.

Three actresses provide some of the play’s most amusingly solid support. As Mrs. O’Reilly, McManus captures the charms of an unexpected, late in life romance. Marianne Fraulo’s multiple roles include a doddering office worker who’s somewhere between retirement age and the grave. Agnes Harty takes on the two “bad” women, the shrewish wife of the pants factory owner, and a hard-boiled criminal kingpin with high hair and kinky stockings.

Despite Ignatius’ status as a classic creation, many of the minor players fall into more familiar stereotypes such as henpecking Jewish wife, thick-accented Latino, pugnacious Italian, mincing antiques dealer, etc. Garner and Key juggle the roles and relationships reasonably well and build to a satisfying “what goes around, comes around” resolution. The talented ensemble can’t make up for the fact that the supporting characterizations tend to be too thin to deserve the attention the production devotes to them over a full three hours. Meanwhile, the backdrop of Sara Ward’s set presents a collage of New Orleans photos and resembles a blown-up tourism brochure.

Throughout the play Ignatius expounds on a “worldview” that includes nostalgia for the enlightened royalty of the past, disdain for most facets of modernity, and misguided support for “oppressed” workers who seem to cope just fine. His pacifistic vision of “sodomites” taking over the world’s military amusingly resonates with contemporary gay politics. Overall, Toole reveals a more generous worldview than his creation, and sympathizes with most of his Crescent City eccentrics despite their tendency to caricature.

A Confederacy of Dunces’ tragic history puts its comedy in a melancholy context. Toole committed suicide in 1969, and seven years later his mother pressed a copy of the manuscript on a reluctant Walker Percy, who read it and championed its publication. Toole was worldlier than Ignatius, but his writings were scarcely more appreciated in his lifetime. The rowdy humor of A Confederacy of Dunces comes laced with a bittersweet awareness that Toole didn’t live to see that sometimes the dunces are on the side of the angels.