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Toole wrote his first novel, The Neon Bible, at the age of 16. After graduating from Tulane, he studied at Columbia, in New York City, while teaching at Hunter College. Later, while serving in the army, Toole taught English to Spanish-speaking recruits in Puerto Rico. But he was never able to break away from his mother.
After his discharge from the Army, Toole returned home. His parents were having financial difficulties, as his father, a car salesman, was struggling with deafness and mental illness. They needed the salary he received as a teacher at Dominican College, a Catholic girl's school.
While teaching and supporting his family, Toole finished his grand opus, A Confederacy of Dunces. However, like many first-time authors, he could not find a publisher. Suffering from frustration and depression, Toole killed himself in 1969. Thanks to his mother's efforts, his novel was published after his death, earning Toole, posthumously, the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
This story is clearly a play waiting to be written. And almost fifty years later, Vivian Neuwirth, a former student at that Catholic girl's school, stepped up to the plate. Her play, Mr. Toole, is now at 59E59 Theaters, directed by Cat Parker. For the most part, faithful to the true story, the play uses a narrator — a student named Lisette (Julia Randall), who has fallen in love with Toole.
But Mr. Toole is not really about the writer, who dies in the middle of the drama and only reappears occasionally (mostly in flashbacks). Nor is it about Toole's father, John (Stephen Schnetzer), who is constantly trying to assert himself and constantly ignored (this could be because he's always playing with a toy car). Nor is it even about the love-struck Lisette.
The centrsl charscter of Mr. Toole is Thelma (Linda Purl), a strong, sometimes delusional southe rn belle who could have stepped out of a Tennessee Williams play. This is partly due to the script but even more because Purl dominates the stage like none of the other actors. There's steel in her backbone, sugar on her lips and fire in her heart. She's the kind of mother that both sustains and destroys with love.
Director Cat Parker and set/video designer George Allison have used the small stage at 59E59 Theaters extremely well. Projections and lighting take the audience smoothly from Toole's classroom to his home to the streets of New Orleans.
Mr. Toole has had something of a journey. It began as a one-act at the Estrogenius Festival, where it won Best Playwriting. This encouraged Neuwirth to turn the story into a full-length drama, which debuted in the Midtown International Festival.
The temptation for a playwright to turn a one-act into a full-length is sometimes enormous, especially when that one-act receives considerable praise. But in this case, it was a mistake. While much of Mr. Toole is quite moving, many scenes are unnecessary or repetitive.
As the saying goes, don't gild the lily.
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Mr. Toole by Vivian Neuwirth
Directed by Cat Parker
Cast: John Ingle (Man in Bar, Walker Percy); Linda Purl (Thelma); Julia Randall (Lisette), Stephen Schnetzer (John); Ryan Spahn (Ken); Thomas G. Waites (Arthur)
Set/Video Designer: George Allison
Sound Designer: Morry Campbell
Costume Designer: Angela Harner
Production Stage Manager: John Concannon
Running Time: 100 minutes, no intermission
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59 Street, between Park and Madison
From 2/28/20; opens 3/04/20; closing 3/15/20.
Tuesday - Saturday at 7:30 pm; Sunday at 2:30 pm. There is an added performance on Saturday, March 7 at 2:30 pm.
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Feb. 29, 2020
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