Review: "Mr. Toole" Remembers a Literary Voice Nearly Lost

Mr. Toole

Written by Vivian Neuwirth

Directed by Cat Parker

Presented by Articulate Theatre Company in association with Lagniappe Productions at 59E59 Theaters

59 E. 59th St., Manhattan, NYC

February 28-March 15, 2020

Ryan Spahn. Photo by Ken Howard
When we first saw Vivian Neuwirth's Mr. Toole, which revolves around the personal and literary struggles—if one can separate the two—of A Confederacy of Dunces author John Kennedy Toole, it was as a short play in the 2014 EstroGenius festival, when we called it a powerful piece and said that it would be easy to imagine as a full-length production. Now, that full-length production has arrived, with a greatly expanded Mr. Toole making its debut at 59E59 Theaters on the fortieth anniversary of the posthumous publication of Toole's Pulitzer Prize-winning comic novel of New Orleans. Mr. Toole explores the messy intersections of loss and preservation, resilience and despair, through the fight for a literary legacy.

Neuwirth was at one time a student of Toole's, and it is admiring Dominican College student Lisette (Julia Randall) whose voice frames the narrative. Lisette's role as witness is reflected in her omnipresence in the first half of the play, taking notes on the side of the stage when not directly part of a scene. The only one of the students in the literature class taught by Toole (Ryan Spahn) to engage meaningfully with the experience, she develops a romantic longing for her instructor. At home, Toole grapples with the conflict between his job, which he does not find especially fulfilling, and his calling, which is writing. His proud, overbearing mother, Thelma (Linda Purl), insists that the household, which includes his father, John (Stephen Schnetzer), who is suffering from encroaching dementia, needs Toole and the money that his teaching brings in. Meanwhile, the initial elation that a NYC editor wants to work with him becomes tempered by the editor's constant requests for retooling. Toole reacts to his suffocating circumstances partly with late nights at drinking establishments (possible queerness is hinted at in an exchange with a bar patron [John Ingle] that includes a brief, subtle physical touch by Spahn). When Toole and his mother get into a shouting fight (a nightly occurrence, according to John), Purl's performance in the immediate aftermath suggests a Thelma who is half defiant and half afraid to lose him.
l-r: Linda Purl, Julia Randall, Stephen Schnetzer. Photo by Ken Howard
Thelma does in fact lose her son, as anyone familiar with Toole's life is aware, and Mr. Toole becomes the story of those left behind by Toole, who does not disappear but recurs from time to time as a memory or an unseen observer, echoing Lisette's position in the play's first half. Lisette befriends the family as the people who loved Toole each try to claim something of what remains. And while Toole's father, worried about renewed gossip, initially resists Thelma's plan to get her son's manuscript published, she dedicates herself to this endeavor, a long road that eventually leads to an encounter with established author Walker Percy (John Ingle). 
l-r: Ryan Spahn, Linda Purl, Stephen Schnetzer. Photo by Ken Howard
T.S. Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" acts as a sort of repository of controlling metaphor throughout the play. The concern in "Prufrock" with hope and its loss, with hesitancy, repetition, and failure to act can be seen reflected, for instance, in the association of Toole's father with mobility and his mother with stasis, as well as in his mother's difficulty in defining herself as anything other than Toole's mother. Tragically, the qualities that put Thelma into conflict with her family members also make her a dogged literary executor, much as her admirable determination to publish Toole's work (and, by extension, her continued focus on her relationship to her son) is bound up her husband's repeated query: What about me? "Prufrock" too offers parallels with Toole and how he sees his life, as well as with Lisette, including the complication that while she presents the conclusion of her narrative as a comforting reclamation of Toole's presence, she also, even then, imagines romance with someone completely unattainable. 

l-r: Linda Purl, Thomas G. Waites. Photo by Ken Howard
Settings are established with screens augmenting some cubbies and a table and chairs, allowing both for versatility and focus on the actors. Spahn brings an affecting pathos to Toole's character, to his yearning and frustration, while Purl lends a necessary, prickly complexity to Thelma. Schnetzer's John displays a similar chafing at his circumstances, filtered through a layer of amiability that he perhaps owes to his mental state and mixed with a deep-rooted love for his family, and Randall underlays Lisette's schoolgirl sweetness with firm resolve, creating some interesting parallels with Thelma. Ingle makes for a fine, dignified Walker Percy, and Thomas G. Waites gives a wonderfully engaging performance as Thelma's fundamentally decent, working-class brother.

While Eliot serves as the play's poetic touchstone, words of Shakespeare's too come to mind, specifically his promise to the subject of Sonnet 18 that as "long as men can breathe or eyes can see," his writing will keep that person alive. Within Neuwirth's play, this sentiment certainly applies to A Confederacy of Dunces, but it is equally true of Mr. Toole itself.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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