|A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE|
In a world where we, as Americans, have become used to having “unconventional” romantic relationships – usually without fear, judgment or retribution -- and yet are increasingly aware those rights are on the verge being taken away, there’s an extra dose of relevancy in “A Man of No Importance,” the heartfelt 2002 musical by Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens and the late Terrence McNally, which is getting a near-perfect “revisal” at Classic Stage Company.
The show focuses on Alfie Byrne (Jim Parsons), a closeted bus conductor in 1960s Dublin who pours all his energy into an amateur acting troupe that uses the local church, St. Imelda’s, for its venue. However, Alfie has decided, against all common sense, to put on the most controversial play by his hero, Oscar Wilde, the salacious “Salome” – almost seemingly unaware that not all the locals will see the work as a great work of art. He has also perhaps chosen this particular play because he believes he has the perfect person to play Jokanaan (aka John the Baptist): Robbie Fay (a superb A.J. Shively), the young, handsome, kindly – and extremely straight -- bus driver with whom he has fallen in love.
Director John Doyle hasn’t eschewed his usual “gimmicks” for this one-act production – including a minimalist set (of his own design) and having a few of his cast members play instruments on stage (to augment the band) – but everything seems organic this time. More importantly, he handles the occasional tricky material (first familiar from the 1994 film of the same name) with enormous sensitivity. Best of all, Doyle has assembled a crackerjack cast of theater pros, each of whom bring three-dimensional life to even the smallest roles. Indeed, to get the only bad news out of the way, Doyle’s only misstep – perhaps one not foreseen – was selecting Parsons to play Alfie.
True, Parsons often succeeds in carefully crafting his complex character; he’s particularly poignant in the scenes when Alfie wonders if he can emerge from his solitude and shame to “speak the love which dares not speak its name.” Further, his pleasant-enough singing voice works well enough for his solos, most notably the breathtakingly beautiful “Love Who You Love.”
But Parsons’ readings of Alfie’s more comic lines seem identical to the ones he gave on TV as Sheldon Cooper in “The Big Bang Theory”; he struggles (and fails miserably) to hold on his Irish accent; and he seems altogether too American – especially amidst the pitch-perfect ensemble. Ultimately, the center does not hold, but the work succeeds in spite of its absence.
In addition to Shively, who nails his showstopping ballad “The Streets of Dublin,” the show benefits immeasurably from the work of the always-amazing Mare Winningham as Alfie’s world-weary but devoted sister Lily; the mesmerizing Thom Sesma as her long-time boyfriend, Mr. Carney (whose devotion to the Catholic church proves to be the undoing of his relationships with both Lily and Alfie); the stunning, silver-throated Shereen Ahmed as town newcomer Adele Rice, whom Alfie casts as Salome and who carries a shameful secret of her own; William Youmans as Baldy, the group’s tart-tongued but thoroughly sentimental stage manager; and the peerless Mary Beth Peil and Alma Cuervo as the self-important “thespians,” Mrs. Grace and Miss Crowe.
Flaherty and Ahrens’ score may not have the depth of “Ragtime” or the joy of “Once on This Island,” but it’s consistently tuneful and often quite clever, most notably in Lily and Carney’s sardonic duet “Books” and Baldy’s sweet-natured “The Cuddles That Mary Gave.” And a stronger singer than Parsons would have made more impact with Alfie’s “11 o’clock” number, “Welcome to the World.”
Still, its minor flaws notwithstanding, you will definitely want a ticket to enter the world of “A Man of No Importance.” With any luck, as well, this world will expand to Broadway in the near future, so even more audience members can experience it!
By Brian Scott Lipton
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