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A Man of No Importance

Theatre Review by James Wilson - October 30, 2022

A. J. Shively and Jim Parsons
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Although he does not always employ the approach, John Doyle has become known for directing productions in which performers function as both musicians and characters. The result can sometimes illuminate a script by highlighting the interplay of story, music and lyrics. It may, however, create a distancing effect in which actors, burdened with instruments, cannot fully embody their personas nor register intimate connections with other characters. In the current Classic Stage Company revival of the 2002 musical A Man of No Importance, Doyle applies the tactic sparingly–there are on-stage musicians as well as a handful of ensemble members serving as accompanists. At times, cast members use smaller instruments such as a tambourine or a frame drum, which also serve as props. The overall effect makes for a mostly thrilling evening. As a consequence, Doyle and company have invigorated a show that, at least for this theatre aficionado, has been considered second rate at best.

The musical, which is based on the 1994 film of the same name, has a book by Terrence McNally with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Set in Dublin in 1964, A Man of No Importance centers around Alfie Byrne (Jim Parsons), a bus conductor with a penchant for Oscar Wilde. Alfie stages plays at St. Imelda's, the local parish, featuring the enthusiastic but talent-impaired transit riders, Irish laborers, and homemakers. For his newest production of Wilde's Salome, Alfie hopes to cast his Bosie, the handsome young bus driver Robbie Fay (A. J. Shively), and the shy and attractive new Dublin transplant Adele Rice (Shereen Ahmed).

Alfie lives with his overly protective sister Lily (Mare Winningham), who vows not to get married until her brother has a wife to take care of him. This is not a small sacrifice because she and Mr. Carney (Thom Sesma), the butcher next door, have been unofficially engaged for years. Alfie is a closeted gay man, so the brother and sister seem destined to lives of romantic unfulfillment. When his secret is exposed and the Church cancels Salome, which Father Kenny (Nathaniel Stampley) deems a "dirty play," Alfie's world seems to come crashing down around him.

When I saw the original Off-Broadway production at Lincoln Center, I was left unmoved and ultimately dispirited. Roger Rees and Faith Prince, its two stars, were fine, but I didn't believe them as an unrefined, working-class, middle-aged brother and sister. Flaherty and Ahrens, who were following up on the unsuccessful but immensely tuneful Seussical, created a serviceable but somewhat bland score that merged Irish folk music with traditional musical theatre songs. And McNally, who had previously worked with the duo on Ragtime (and would later collaborate with them on Anastasia), provided a proficient but surprisingly unaffecting book.

Working with the same material, and with an outstanding cast, Doyle (who also provided the set design, which makes excellent use of wooden chairs and over-sized curtains) reveals that the show is not simply about a frustrated gay man living in a homophobic society. It is at its heart about a community of lonely people who have lost love, experienced unrequited love, or are looking for love through extramarital affairs. Alfie's song to Adele, "Love Who You Love," sums up the musical's big-hearted message. In the process, the performances bare the latent poignancy that had formerly lay hidden underneath.

Mare Winningham and Thom Sesma
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Notably, the force that binds the individuals together is theatre itself, and Doyle makes wonderful use of metatheatrical conventions, including having some characters play instruments. The show is, after all, a play within a play within a play. That is, the community members, riffing on the title of Wilde's A Woman of No Importance, have chosen to re-enact Alfie's story, which involves producing another Wilde play. Emphasizing the text's theatricality, the staging makes use of the entire house, thereby enfolding the audience within the action. (Ann Hould-Ward's period-specific costumes and Adam Honoré's gorgeous lighting contribute to the appropriate and embellished staginess.)

Additionally, the circulating characters/musicians add to the sense of immediacy and intimacy. Except for a very unfortunate moment when an overzealous guitarist ferociously and climactically stamped the floor next to my chair and all but ruined the best song in the score, "The Streets of Dublin," exhilaratingly sung by Shively, the roving music adds to the aural experience. (Bruce Coughlin orchestrated, and all of the musicians–even the overzealous guitarist–do fine work under Caleb Hoyer's direction.)

For many people, the chief draw will be Parsons, who does not disappoint. He sings effectively and exudes a warm gentleness while portraying a comically condescending Wildean aesthete. Winningham proves once again that she is a sublime musical theatre performer. Her commanding and folksy voice is perfectly suited to the score, especially the pleading "Tell Me Why." Impressively, she conveys agonizing fragility under a tough-as-nails exterior. The rest of the ensemble is excellent, and there is an embarrassment of riches with Broadway stalwarts, such as Alma Cuervo, Mary Beth Peil, and William Youmans rounding out the cast.

I found myself tearing up at the end and not simply due to the plight of a gay man who is struggling to live his honest self. Been there, done that, saw it all before. Indeed, it's a story worth telling, but what moved me was the reminder that even at a time when we are socially and politically more disconnected than ever, the theatre can provide a forgiving, comforting, and accepting space. And you don't even have to play a musical instrument to be a part of it.

A Man of No Importance
Through December 18, 2022
Classic Stage Company
Lynn F. Angelson Theater, 136 E 13th Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule: