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Theatre in Review: Mr. Toole (59E59)/About Love (Sheen Center)

Top: Ryan Spahn, Linda Purl, Stephen Schnetzer. Photo: Ken Howard. Bottom: Silvia Bond, Jeffrey Kringer, Misha Josephs. Photo: Russ Rowland.

There are gusts of unrequited desire blowing through our theatres this week; note that I decline to use the word "love." This is because each play under consideration today presents the latter state as a matter of obsession, driving its characters to make some rather dubious decisions. Indeed, after seeing either, you might find yourself asking the question, What's love got to do with it?

The title of Mr. Toole is a misnomer, leading you to believe that it is about the late novelist John Kennedy Toole. Far from it: He appears early on but is quickly crowded out by the two women who, each in her own way, want to possess him. Toole is one of American literature's odder minor characters, a witty and learned academic who dwelled for years in obscurity, laboring to produce the big novel that would make him famous. The magnum opus, A Confederacy of Dunces, a picaresque comic epic set in Toole's beloved New Orleans, caught the eye of editor Robert Gottlieb, but, after asking for multiple rewrites, he sent a letter of rejection. Toole, discouraged, killed himself in 1969. However, his indomitable mother, Thelma, spent years championing her son's work, finally pressing it into the hands of Walker Percy, who helped to get it published. A Confederacy of Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

Whatever you think of A Confederacy of Dunces -- I found it unreadable -- Toole's story is quite a saga, but the playwright, Vivian Neuwirth, is more interested in the two women who figured in his life -- or tried to. The action is dominated by Thelma, who, as per the script and Linda Purl's performance, is an overwrought road-company Amanda Wingfield, a faded, socially pretentious belle who can't serve a cup of coffee without making an opera out of it. Thelma is stifling, controlling, and given to arias of grievance; she even follows her closeted son down to Bourbon Street, spying on his social activities and delivering school-of-Tennessee Williams denunciations: "The way you carry on with those boys. You think I don't know where you go! I've seen you! Creeping in the back door, your clothes stained with God knows what!? I've looked inside the windows of those bars where unspeakable sins are committed!"

Indeed -- intentionally or not -- Mr. Toole appears to be modeled on The Glass Menagerie, with Ken, as the novelist is known, forced to toil as a college professor to support his grasping mother and his father, who suffers from early-onset dementia. As if he doesn't have enough troubles, one of his students, Lisette, becomes besotted with him, forcing herself into his life by any means necessary. Neuwirth studied under Toole, but if this character is a self-portrait, it's a highly unflattering one: Her creepy, stalkerish behavior -- she sits outside his house, waiting for the opportunity to throw herself at him -- is more reminiscent of a crazed Justin Bieber fan than a sensitive, intelligent youth in love with literature.

If you attend Mr. Toole hoping to learn something about the novelist, good luck, but you will learn plenty about Thelma and Lisette, if you can put up with them. As directed by Cat Parker, the play throbs with noisy declarations of devotion but very little real feeling. The fine actor Ryan Spahn makes something intriguing out of Ken -- who is honed to a fine degree of neuroticism by a percolating mix of hope and despair -- but he is too often absent from the action. Julia Randall is an interesting presence, but Lisette is a weird one, especially when rifling through Ken's bedroom in search of a paper that she submitted just before his death, convinced that he must have written something meaningful on it. (Her ability to make his passing all about her is really something to see.) The character of John, the family's patriarch, who occasionally, conveniently emerges from his mental fog to comment mordantly on Thelma's behavior, is handled reasonably well by Stephen Schnetzer. Thomas G. Waites does solid work as Thelma's brother, a stevedore whose working-class ways embarrass her.

The scenic/video design, by George Allison, offers many evocative views of New Orleans; Angela Harner's costumes, Kia Rogers' lighting, and Morry Campbell's sound are okay. But this is an irritating and unfocused work dominated by two highly unpleasant characters whose professions of adoration are really smoke screens for their narcissism.

In contrast, Peter, the young hero of About Love, is certain that his heart is bursting with the real thing. This is because the new musical is adapted from Ivan Turgenev's True Love, the classic tale of a youth besotted and betrayed. The sixteen-year-old Peter and his well-off parents are summering in the Russian countryside in 1853. Their neighbors for the season are the Princess, a desiccated, bankrupt, and endlessly needy aristocrat, and her daughter, Zina, a professional charmer who, as the play begins, has four men on a string and is about to add Peter to her collection.

The inexperienced Peter falls hard for Zina, who is a few years older, and he spends the summer as a member her retinue of admirers, his self-regard rising and falling with each of her many mood swings. Even allowing for her obvious internal misery, her treatment of the young man often seems callous, but if you've read Turgenev's story, you know that Zina harbors an explosive secret that, when revealed, will send shock waves through Peter's existence.

I can't speak to the wisdom of musicalizing First Love because the people behind About Love haven't really done the job. Although the attractive, golden-voiced Jeffrey Kringer is cast as Peter, the production's bountiful first-person narration -- the story is more often described than acted out -- is handled by all six cast members. It's a story-theatre technique that may be useful in some circumstances but here militates against the audience seeing the world through Peter's innocent, ardent eyes -- and if we don't go along with him on a wild emotional ride, there isn't really a show. The noted jazz singer Nancy Harrow has contributed five or six numbers with admittedly attractive melodies, but their lyrics are distressingly simple and generic; you could remove them from the production with no material difference in the storytelling. They are also redolent more of chic Manhattan boƮtes than Russian dachas. Indeed, Zina's swingy rendition of the title tune makes her into a nineteenth-century Muscovite jazz baby.

Silvia Bond is an attractive and skilled performer, and if she can't make Zina into the sort of enchantress who clouds men's minds, Will Pomerantz's book and direction certainly share the blame. The rest of the cast -- including Helen Coxe as both the Princess and a malicious, jealous count; Tom Patterson as Peter's too-understanding father; Jean Tafler as Peter's increasingly aggrieved mother; and Dan Domingues as a cynical doctor who knows he is being played for a fool but enjoys it anyway -- all make highly professional contributions.

Other enjoyable aspects include Brian C. Staton's spare, suggestively rustic set design; Allen Hahn's delicately beautiful lighting; Whitney Locher's attractive, flexible costumes; and Connor Brent's discreetly rendered sound. But About Love is a strangely inapposite and undramatic proposition, a read-aloud evening accompanied by mood music, resulting in a rather chilly affair. -- David Barbour

(5 March 2020)

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