“We’re Irish. We’re drunk. We sing here.” Enough said, and in the simplest of terms, A Man of No Importance, the musical revival currently being performed, most beautifully, at the downtown Classic Stage Company‘s theatre, is the extremely touching story of a man of little importance, or so he thinks. Played tenderly by Jim Parsons (Broadway/Netflix’s Boys in the Band), Alfie Byrne stands solemnly, and a bit awkwardly center stage, looking out into his world wondering what what life is all about. He’s caring and precise, finding life in the way he leads a mishmash group of amateur actors who are trying their best to bring, what Alfie believes to be, great works of theatrical art to their small community theatre in Dublin. He’s obsessed with his vision, and of course, Oscar Wilde, having just staged The Importance of Being Earnest, to not the greatest acclaim. It’s doubtful his community is on the same pathway, but regardless, up next, he wants to stage Wilde’s Salome, but this might be a bridge too far. And as this gentle connecting musical revs its musical engines up and gets underway, we are told, alongside him and a few overturned chairs, that the church where the St. Imelda’s Players are based has shut that production down, woefully, because of its inappropriateness. Maybe books are “at the root of it” all, but not in the way they think. Quite the opposite.
“Have you come to gloat?” he asks Father Kenny, played intently by Nathaniel Stampley (Broadway’s The Color Purple), as he stands, reflecting the events that lay behind him, and what may lay ahead. But the drive of the playful musical comes as the actors of his troupe amass becoming his personal Greek chorus determined to take him through the world he inhabits and how he got to this place. And to show him his importance. It’s now a play within a play, where he is not the director, but the star of his very own complicated life, and all the loves and desires that live inside this unmarried bus conductor’s mind will be ushered out down the aisle. All the people in his life begin to appear, standing against, but mostly alongside him, including, and most importantly, his sister Lily, played gloriously by the always excellent Mare Winningham (Broadway’s The Girl from the North Country). And with the red stage curtain dramatically pulled aside, the rewinding of his life begins.
“We had a grand time,” says the rear view mirror reflection of that bus that drives carefully down the road, and with the simple but sublime music, created by Stephen Flaherty (Anastasia), with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens (Once On This Island) and a book by Terrence McNally (Kiss of the Spider Woman; It’s Only a Play), the musical pulls itself up, and opens its doors gently beside the man, ushering him down the central aisle as he reads Oscar Wilde to the people who daily take the very bus that he works on. He sells them their tickets all the while he feeds them poetry from and to the heart, alongside his favorite person in the world, bus driver Robbie Fay, played beautifully by A.J. Shively (Broadway’s Paradise Square; Bright Star). The drive the emotional bus forward, these two, engaged in the sweetest of unions. And without a doubt, we can fully get behind that adoration, except of course, we know somewhere in your hearts that they are like two doomed ships cruising forward into the future. But what does it mean, his love and care for this delightfully handsome young man driving this bus forward? It’s unclear at the beginning, but it is 1964, and we are in Dublin, Ireland, riding a bus with Alfie Byrne and we find ourselves happy and content to be along for the ride. No matter where this soulful musical has decided to take us.
I have never seen nor have I heard of this musical before; never even seen the supposedly glorious 1994 Albert Finney film with the same name. So I had no idea walking in what kind of road this story was going to take. I feel a bit naive to admit, but when that pretty young female newcomer, Adele Rice, portrayed engagingly by Shereen Ahmed (Irish Rep’s Meet Me in St. Louis), steps onto the bus, I, like Alfie’s sister, can’t help but ponder this addition to the bus ride might lead us to a certain kind of place. Maybe that’s because I’ve been preconditioned to see and feel the heteronormative pathways that exist in old school musicals. I’m not sure, and Alfie does seem smitten by the very attractive Adele. So he recites Oscar Wilde’s words to Adele, in an attempt to impress her and all those that ride that bus with him. He wants her, not for himself, I soon learn, but to be his “Salome” princess, and for his Robbie to be his prince, maybe in more ways than he is even willing to address straight up. But for at least that moment, I didn’t see the obvious green carnation before my very eyes. Silly yes, but that’s the power of our preexisting conditioning, and not the weakness of this tender tale and this gloriously created theatrical production.
It’s no wonder that Wilde stands strong, literally at the center of this tale, with his ghost, joyful portrayed by Thom Sesma (CSC’s Pacific Overtures), wandering in, wrapped in a cape, and coaxing along our reluctant hero. Alfie’s stance is most definitely about “art” being the outlet for an inner life never proclaimed nor lived, and his way of engaging is to let poetry lead him through his passions, instead of actualizing them. Luckily, it seems he, as the leader of his theatrical troupe, has the engaging presence to bring all of those riders to his poetry, to get them to gather around his table, and support him through the process and the reading, that is until Salome begins to stir things up.
“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it,” and in the dutiful hands of Parsons, the piece touchingly works its engaging magic on us. His voice is a tad shaky, but it doesn’t matter. We can’t help but love and care for this tortured soul, with or without an Irish accent. We gladly take a seat on that bus, wanting and waiting for him to venture at least one step forward into the land of self acceptance and engagement. It’s a modern approach to sexuality, that is clear, and one that won’t necessarily work in his Dublin 1964 world. But it helps that he is surrounded by an assortment of wonderful characters who are both interesting and electric in their spotlight moments. Winningham, for one, is miraculous, giving life to a woman who has given up her adult life to the care of her brother, remaining single for his sake, even with the patient butcher, Mr. Carney, gloriously played by Sesma, standing by waiting in the wings for their moment together. Sesma is a delight as well, letting loose during his special moment to hilariously shine rolling himself around for our enjoyment in the “Going Up!” number early on. His performance is a wonder, signaling to us the delightfulness that awaits as we start this journey with this band of memory theatre makers, even if his role turns itself around on our leading man.
The show, especially because of how it has been designed and directed by John Doyle (CSC’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ul), is as theatrical as it can be, rightly so. Alfie goes around town offering up parts to his “Salome“, and the excited reactions he, and we, get is as exciting as Alfie’s earnestness. Ahmed as the reluctant and complex princess-to-be, Adele, is everything you could hope for in this part, blending innocence and an inner sense of knowing that delivers. But no one in this amazingly talented Greek chorus doesn’t deliver, or at least isn’t given the chance to shine, even if the moment is small. The famous line, “there are no small parts…” spoken as true as can by the wonderful Mary Beth Peil (CSC’s Macbeth) as Mrs. Grace, in the perfect coupling. She brings her few lines forward with such humor and charm, we know we are being blessed with subtle greatness, just like the rest of this illustrious crew: Alma Cuervo (Broadway’s On Your Feet!) as Miss Oona Crowe, Kara Mikula (CSC’s The Cradle Will Rock) as Mrs. Curtain, Da’Von T. Moody (Signature’s Rent) as Breton Beret, Jessica Tyler Wright (NTCO’s Dolores Claiborne) as Mrs. Patrick, Joel Waggoner (Broadway’s School of Rock) as Ernie Lally, and William Youmans (Broadway’s To Kill a Mockingbird) as Baldy O’Shea. Each are musically and emotionally tuned in and delivering the goods beautifully, creating a Greek chorus that has individuality and engagement in every setup presented.
One of the finest moments of the show though, without a doubt, is Shively’s Robbie electrifying that small Classic Stage with his “The Streets of Dublin” number. It fills the space with the magnificence of the Irish folk tune sound. In that space, the charm and energy of this show just can’t be denied. With delicately designed costuming by Ann Hould-Ward (CSC’s Assassins), warm and engaging lighting by Adam Honoré (CSC’s Frankenstein), and a simple but strong sound design by Sun Hee Kil (Public’s Suffs), A Man of No Importance finds all that is beautiful in the camaraderie of these simple theatrical folk. The music and the performances shine the warmest of light on these people, and how they can care about one another through art and literature. It’s tender, and a joy to behold, leaving us knowing that we all have a lot to learn and understand about love and compassion, as we watch Alfie’s Greek chorus come together to show just how important the man, and his passion, for people and for art, is to all those who want to ride that bus down those sweet beautiful Irish streets.
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