Review: "Mr. Toole" Remembers a Literary Voice Nearly Lost
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|
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|
|l-r: Linda Purl, Thomas G. Waites. Photo by Ken Howard|
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