On one level, “A Confederacy of Dunces’’ is ideally suited to adaptation for the theater.
After all, there are few fictional protagonists more theatrical than Ignatius J. Reilly, the bellowing, supercilious, misanthropic, lavishly eccentric, morbidly obese man-child who lurches through the pages of John Kennedy Toole’s picaresque novel as if in perpetual search of a stage.
Yet the Huntington Theatre Company’s world premiere of “A Confederacy of Dunces,’’ starring Nick Offerman as Ignatius and directed by David Esbjornson, ultimately adds up to less than the sum of its sporadically entertaining parts.
In its teeming cast of characters and kaleidoscopic structure, built on a series of farcical set pieces, Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation mirrors Toole’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book. But something vital is lost in translation.
Over the course of the novel’s nearly 350 pages, Toole enveloped the reader in Ignatius’s personality and worldview and the peculiarities of a New Orleans milieu through which percolate the anarchic energies of the 1960s. So as Ignatius’s grandiose plans invariably spiral into chaos, there’s a weird logic to even the most bizarre episodes, which seem to grow out of that wider context.
When compressed and combined for the stage as they are here, however, events take on an arbitrary and self-consciously “wacky’’ quality, too often registering like one of those “Saturday Night Live’’ sketches in which you wait for the point to emerge (although there are significantly more laughs in “Dunces’’ than “SNL’’ is customarily able to muster).
Despite the production’s shortcomings, Offerman’s performance as Ignatius is impressive. Having been rightly acclaimed for his creation of one cult figure — Ron Swanson, on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation’’ — it’s audacious of the actor to follow that up by tackling another figure whose following is fervent-bordering-on-rabid.
Encased in a fat suit, Offerman billows across the stage of the BU Theatre like an untethered balloon at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. His deft comic timing is on full display; few actors are better at using silence and a stare to maximize a moment. When he does speak, it is in a voice of prissy hauteur that communicates the lordly distaste with which Ignatius views mere mortals. Still living with his mother at age 30, this pseudo-scholar is a compound of certitude, sloth, and hypersensitivity. (When Offerman’s Ignatius wails in pain after he slaps his hand on a table, I pictured Ron Swanson curling his lip in manly disdain.)
Director Esbjornson, who was at the helm for the Huntington’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’’ and “All My Sons,” brings some inventive touches to “Dunces.’’ The production calls attention to its own artifice from the start, allowing the audience to witness Offerman easing into that fat suit before he then dons Ignatius’s oversize clothes and trademark hunting cap with earmuffs. The negligible use of props requires us to use our imaginations when a character takes a drink, say, or drives a car, or brandishes naughty photographs. Riccardo Hernandez’s scenic design conjures a multiplicity of settings with not much more than chairs, tables, and corrugated screens.
Ignatius is content to mooch off his increasingly exasperated mother, Irene (Anita Gillette, excellent) while he scribbles away on a historical-cultural-philosophical tome he describes as “a lengthy indictment against our century.’’ (In the novel, we learn that Ignatius has written an average of six paragraphs a month over the previous five years). His interest quickens in a combination of animosity and lust when he receives letters from his sort-of-ex girlfriend, the political activist Myrna Minkoff (Stephanie DiMaggio).
Mother and son are drawn into a fracas in front of a department store involving Patrolman Mancuso (Paul Melendy) and an elderly gent named Claude Robichaux (Ed Peed), who will later court Irene. Ignatius and Irene then wind up in a seedy joint called the Night of Joy, where the sweet-natured stripper Darlene (Talene Monahon) is struggling to put together a new act with her cockatoo while being browbeaten by the club’s tyrannical owner, Lana Lee (DiMaggio again). The newly hired custodian, Burma Jones (Phillip James Brannon), is determined to undermine Lana Lee, a goal that Ignatius inadvertently helps Jones realize.
Forced by his mother to find a job, Ignatius ends up at Levy Pants, where the hapless Mr. Gonzalez (Arnie Burton) is trying to keep a failing business together, sharing the office with the doddering Miss Trixie (Julie Halston, hilarious). Gonzalez’s task is made no easier when Ignatius foments an uprising among the factory workers. The next career move for our hero finds him pushing a hot dog cart through the streets of New Orleans while attired in pirate garb, whereupon he meets the flamboyant Dorian Greene (Burton again).
Ignatius hits upon the idea of enlisting Dorian and his gay friends in a scheme to bring about world peace by infiltrating the world’s armies and governments. Playwright Hatcher conflates the book’s rallying-the-gay-troops scene and the climactic showdown in the Night of Joy, resulting in a scene that feels rushed. Far more effective is the finale, in which “A Confederacy of Dunces’’ shifts into a poignant key that finally reveals the humanity hidden deep within Ignatius’s armor of scorn.
A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES
Play by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel by John Kennedy Toole. Directed by David Esbjornson. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At BU Theatre, through Dec. 20. Tickets start at $25. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org