For his final show as departing Artistic Director of Off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company, John Doyle has directed a condensed one-act revival of the acclaimed 2002 musical A Man of No Importance by Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), based on the 1994 film of the same name, written by Barry Devlin. It’s a fitting theme and an optimistic message to leave us with, about a man’s passion for the theater, and the importance of art, friendship, and love, connection and acceptance.
Set in Dublin in 1964, it tells the story of the closeted bus conductor Alfie Byrne, an aficionado of Oscar Wilde who reads poems to his passengers, runs an amateur theater group called The St. Imelda’s Players, and is determined to stage a version of Salome at the church hall, despite objections to it for being “immodest.” Though he struggles with the rampant restrictions and bigotry of his era, and fears embracing a love “that dare not speak its name,” he finds solace in art, two empathetic members of the group who also have secrets for which they don’t want to be judged, and a community that appreciates him for the good man that he is and is determined to forge ahead with the show by moving it to a more accepting parish.
Doyle, who also designed the sparse set, creates just the right atmosphere to evoke a low-budget amateur troupe, using wooden folding chairs and a table on a thrust stage to represent, in different configurations, the bus, Alfie’s home, a pub, and the church’s performance space, with a curtain and a statue of the Virgin Mary overseeing the action at the far end (with apropos changes in lighting by Adam Honoré). Several members of the cast play musical instruments on stage (in addition to the four-person orchestra on the balcony above, conducted by Caleb Hoyer), facilitating the clever use of a tambourine doubling as a dinner plate and a hand drum as the bus’s steering wheel (with Alexander Wylie serving as props supervisor).
Costumes by Ann Hould-Ward capture the period style and occupations of the Irish characters in muted colors and natural fabrics, and the score, with orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin and music direction by Hoyer, has an authentic Irish sound and lilt. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the actors’ uneven accents, most notably that of Jim Parsons, who stars as Alfie, in an enervated performance that briefly comes to life when he defends Salome to the church authorities, adamantly proclaiming from the top of the side aisle (with clear sound by Sun Hee Kil, which enables Doyle’s blocking throughout the house), that “It’s not immodest, it’s ART.”
Standouts in the cast, as both powerful singers and engaging actors with impeccable accents, are A.J. Shively as Robbie Fay, the handsome young bus driver for whom Alfie holds an attraction and invites to take part in the show, and Shereen Ahmed as Adele Rice, a beautiful and delicate newcomer on the bus, whom he convinces to play the lead role of Salome. Shively is likeable, loving, and kind, and brings down the house with the lively showstopper “The Streets of Dublin.” Ahmed is soft and poignant and brings her crystalline soprano to the bittersweet ballad “Princess.” Neither of them is what Alfie thinks they are, and once the truth comes out about all of them, both are empathetic and stand by him and who he is, without judgment.
Mare Winningham brings moments of conflicted emotion to her role as Alfie’s critical sister Lily, a spinster who continues to live with him and to delay her own marriage until he finds a wife, unaware of the reason he hasn’t, then deprecating when she is. Nathaniel Stampley as Father Kenny and Thom Sesma as Mr. Carney, a butcher who dates Lily, performs with the theater troupe, and leads the church Sodality, are Alfie’s main antagonists, who shut down the performance of Salome (despite the fact that the subject is derived from the Biblical narrative of John the Baptist). And Da’Von T. Moody as Breton Beret exposes him in a deceitful and violent act (fight and intimacy direction by Judi Lewis Ockler) that forces the members of the Players (Alma Cuervo, Kara Mikula, Mary Beth Peil, Jessica Tyler Wright, Joel Waggoner, and William Youmans) to choose what they will support: the strictures of the church and the homophobia of their city, or their devotion to the theater and its most dedicated proponent, who unites them through the love and power of art.
While the message is ultimately uplifting, the ensemble’s Celtic-inspired songs are entertaining, and the performances of Shively and Ahmed are thoroughly compelling, the generally understated mood of the production detracts from the inherent emotion of the story and its driving passion for the theater.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes, without intermission.
A Man of No Importance plays through Sunday, December 18, 2022, at Classic Stage Company, 136 West 13th Street, NYC. For tickets (starting at $87, plus fees), go online. Everyone must wear a mask inside the theater.