Opening Nights: Dunces and Runt

A Falstaffian gasbag in the Big Easy, and a football career spent in a brother’s shadow.

A Confederacy of DuncesBook-It Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center House, 305 Harrison St., 216-0833, book-it.org. $15–$30. 7:30 p.m. Wed.–Sat., 2 p.m. Sat.–Sun. Ends Oct. 11.For 20 seasons, Book-It Rep's producers have been dying to get the rights to John Kennedy Toole's legendary (and only) novel. Well, they've gotten them, and what they've done with his work is a marvel indeed. A Confederacy of Dunces is one of those rite-of-passage revels, like Catcher in the Rye. Set in 1962, the book overflows with quirky and memorable characters roaming the streets of New Orleans—perhaps the only American city off-kilter enough to claim them all.At the center of the turmoil is the singular Ignatius J. Reilly (Brandon Whitehead), a gasbag by anyone's measure. Dyspeptic, lazy, overeducated, and utterly bereft of guilt about any of it, Reilly is compelled to mix and mingle with the hoi polloi he so detests when his mother needs money for car repairs. Soon he's found employment at the local pants factory, where he promptly stirs the employees to insurrection.That's just the inciting incident in a play that's as episodic as it is hilarious. In adapter/director Mary Machala's version, events are compressed, moved, and dramatically reinterpreted in a manner that recalls Toole's picaresque rather than simply transposing the novel onto the stage. There are passages where characters deliver exposition (a Book-It signature) as though they're reading from the novel they're in, and many of the performers do double duty in minor roles. Often, actors are better suited to one than another, and as the Undeclared Dialect Czar of Seattle theater (and a former Brooklynite, El Pasoan, and New Orleanian), I can promise you that very few of the vocal impressions onstage bear much resemblance to the street parlance of the Crescent City, Latinos, or New Yorkers.No matter. The mirth and magic of Toole's loony tale are such that these performers could be speaking with Cantonese accents and you'd still be laughing through the show.Reilly lumbers, bellows, wails, and whines from one end of Kurt Walls' terrifically utilitarian set to another. During Reilly's travels, we also visit cops and dive bars, commiserate with his bosses and co-workers at Levy Pants, and watch as his mother (Ellen McLain) slowly weans herself of her overgrown, home-dwelling son and entertains a suitor.If all of this sounds unwieldy, it is. (The 1980 book, published 11 years after Toole's suicide, has proven impossible to condense or film—despite the interest over the years of John Belushi, Steven Soderbergh, and Will Ferrell.) But at three hours (with intermission), Machala's abridgement feels like a reasonable sampling of Toole's world. And what she can't extract from the baggy source novel, its crazy-quilt characters achieve for her.The devoted cast is led by Whitehead's Reilly; everyone plays off him, and he wears the role as though tailored for him on Savile Row. His Reilly appears effortless, and is truly one of the great acting jobs I've seen in decades of watching. As long as this play was, I didn't want to see it end. Nor did I want to see Whitehead in the post-show discussion. No, I want to picture him in that idiotic green hunting cap, dispensing judgment and complaining about his misbehaving "valve," in perpetuity. You will, too. KEVIN PHINNEYRunt of the LitterACT Theatre, 700 Union St., 292-7676, acttheatre.org. $37.50–$50. 7:30 p.m. Tues.–Thurs. and Sun., 8 p.m. Fri.–Sat., 2 p.m. Sat.–Sun. Ends Oct. 11.Bo knows football—there's very little question about that. Runt of the Litter, currently in residence at ACT, is Bo Eason's one-man show that leads patrons down the catacombed corridors beneath the stadium where gridiron warriors do battle. But this is not the cheery locker room of post-game interviews, halftime pep talks, or "Hi, Mom!" kisses to the camera. Eason wants to show how a player thinks and feels about his art of combat, and Runt does just that for 90 minutes.Although playwright/actor Eason is playing a character called Jack Henry, Runt wouldn't have the gravitas it does had he not actually played four seasons of pro football (he was a safety for the Houston Oilers from 1984–87). Eason imagines to life a mythic older brother, Charlie, who takes to the pigskin the way Mozart took to the pianoforte. (Yes, Bo Eason has an older brother, Tony, who enjoyed a more celebrated NFL career as quarterback.) Growing up in his brother's shadow, lacking his brother's scoring talent as QB, Jack decided that he would become his antithesis. Jack's reasoning for becoming a defensive back: If they can't score, they can't win.All along, as the play ricochets from Jack's pregame ritual (which includes some very vivid medical procedures) back to his upbringing by a father who drilled into his boys the conviction they were "the best, goddamn it," there's a showdown brewing between them—at the Super Bowl, no less. The stakes couldn't be higher for the two brothers. What has been an amusing tale rife with locker-room ruminations now reveals the playwright's serious intent. For the sake of a game, he says, look what we make of ourselves.At the Super Bowl, Jack knows Charlie has the better team. But, he says, his Horsemen of the Gridiron Apocalypse would follow him through the gates of Hell. Violence must ensue. Eason dons his helmet and shows how he'll shatter someone's ribs and send him not only out of the game, but out of the sport. Permanently.The resolution is exactly what you'd expect, involving the simple physics of immovable object meeting irresistible force. In the end, Runt is a Cain-and-Abel story, and the ones left aghast are the players' parents, dumbfounded that their little boy took them at their word.Eason spins a convincing tale early on, where the play's autobiographical elements are strongest. It gets a little wobbly near the end, though, as Jack struggles toward self-assessment. And Eason the actor doesn't always distinguish the characters—apart from Jack—he's describing. But in a show he's been performing since 2001, he makes the NFL dream concrete, vivid, and sad. This guy was really there, knows what it was like, and is prepared to tell you all about it. You could hear a story like his at any bar in town where ex-players huddle, but you will never hear it told with more candor or conviction. KEVIN PHINNEY

 
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