"Please, let's go on the record," Nick Offerman says, in the mock-serious tone with which he seems to say everything. "I am eating a seaweed salad and salmon sashimi."
It's true. And what's more, to receive the dish he merely had to tell a waitress he wanted his "norm," after being seated at a restaurant near the Huntington Theatre Company rehearsal space where he's been spending his days lately, working on "A Confederacy of Dunces." The world premiere production starts previews on Wednesday.
To Ron Swanson, the steak-loving man's man Offerman played with deadpan drollery for seven seasons on NBC's "Parks and Recreation," this meal would offend all sensibility. The salmon even violates the nutritional guidelines Offerman puts in his comic memoir, "Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man's Fundamentals for Delicious Living," in which fish is grouped with chicken and lobster under the dismissive heading of "Nope."
Offerman, 45, spent years as a character actor, accruing scores of supporting roles in film, television, and theater. Now he finds himself popularly identified with just one role. He recounts with bemused disbelief a tweet in which a fan, hearing of Offerman's support for a progressive political cause, wondered if Swanson's politically conservative affectations were just an act. "In fact," he says gruffly, "I'm an actor. It was an act."
"Parks and Recreation" ended its run in February, and now Offerman stands at a point of transition. "A Confederacy of Dunces" is an adaptation of the famously chaotic, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by John Kennedy Toole. Following productions of Sharr White's "Annapurna" in Los Angeles and New York, this will be only the second play Offerman has worked on since finding his breakthrough TV role.
But his "manhood was forged" in the theater, he explains. He cofounded Chicago's Defiant Theatre in the theater department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, playing a variety of roles and sometimes chipping in with fight choreography or building sets and props. (He won an award for the puppets and masks he created for a production of Caryl Churchill's "The Striker.")
"He's got a pretty amazing range. I'm glad he's doing a comedy, but he's also an excellent dramatic actor. In another age, he would have been a part of a repertory theater playing different roles every night," says Bart DeLorenzo, founding artistic director of LA's Evidence Room troupe, where Offerman and his wife, Megan Mullally (best known for NBC's "Will & Grace"), are company members.
Back in the pre-Swanson days, Offerman was usually an ensemble player. Now his face is plastered on ads atop taxicabs around Boston — styled as Ignatius J. Reilly, the brainy, obnoxious, gassy, hefty center of gravity of "Dunces."
Written in the early 1960s but not published until 1980 — 11 years after Toole committed suicide — the novel follows the misadventures of Ignatius, a legend in his own mind with terrible hygiene, poor people skills, and seemingly little chance of ever moving out of his mother's New Orleans home. Toole's vivid prose is full of humor, and his crackling dialogue features expertly rendered local dialects from an array of colorful characters. (The play features a cast of 15.)
Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher and directed by David Esbjornson, "Dunces" is presented at the Huntington in cooperation with a development team including Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh, Robert Guza, and John Hardy. The producers are frank about their desire to use the Boston run as a warm-up for Broadway, but they know they need a strong showing to propel "Dunces" onward. "If we don't blow people away here," Guza says, "we're not going anywhere."
Meanwhile, a big challenge for Hatcher and Esbjornson was figuring out how much of the novel's flavor they could preserve while maintaining dramatic momentum. They also knew the book is loved by fans but can seem a curious artifact to nonbelievers. "I've never met anybody who has a neutral attitude about the book. They either loved it or they threw it across the room," says Hatcher.
In a rehearsal room, Offerman puts his deadpan skills to work. As a cluster of characters makes merry with song and dance, his Ignatius enters the scene with a silent gravity that grinds the party to a halt. He towers over his long-suffering mother, played by Anita Gillette. Both his physical presence — bolstered by a fat suit worn by the actor — and his silent disapproval seem to fill up the space.
"He's such an obstacle," Esbjornson says of Ignatius to his actors, "both to move around and to refer to."
Ignatius poses a creative challenge. His unsympathetic qualities are a source of much levity, but could begin to grate on audiences. "Nothing would be worse than having an Ignatius who you sort of hated all the time. That's the challenge of one of these kinds of characters," Esbjornson says. "Quite easily it could just be this horrible, obnoxious person. And [Offerman is] obnoxious in a really charming way. It takes a certain personality and a certain set of skills to be able to pull that off."
Offerman often sheaths his humor in a package of dry seriousness, both on and offstage. But he's relishing this return to his creative roots. Polishing off his seaweed salad, he says he's thrilled to dive back into the improvisational uncertainty of live theater.
"Just to be nostalgic about it — we know the smell of greasepaint, we've all had to put on a beautiful tuxedo in a [expletive] janitor's closet and go out and perform a dance, and then do a quick-change into a clown's outfit underneath the bleachers. It breeds a familiarity that I find very comforting. We all know that the scenery can come tumbling down and we'll still press on. And I don't feel that same comfort when working on a television show," Offerman says.
"I feel like a kid that's been away to college, and I've come back. And all the family around me is saying: OK, you went away to learn how to say your lines. Now show us what you can do."
A Confederacy of Dunces
Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At BU Theatre, Nov. 11-
Dec. 20. Tickets: $25-$155. 617-266-7900, www.huntingtontheatre.org