In his last production as Artistic Director at Classic Stage, John Doyle has once again applied a minimalist approach creating a stripped down version of a musical. The set for A Man of No Importance consists of a curtain, wood folding chairs, and a table. Its cast has been reduced, here doubling up with some actors who are also fine musicians. (Jessica Tyler Wright excels.) The company circles on and off the stage, weaves between chairs, and roosts at audience periphery. As the piece is unpretentious, even delicate, this iteration feels true to its conceit, that of an amateur theater group staging what we see.
Shereen Ahmed and the Company
Following Albert Finney in the 1994 film and Roger Rees in the 2002 Lincoln Center production, 49 year-old Jim Parsons (perhaps not the young man you’re accustomed to from television, but also not as old as his predecessors) plays closeted Dublin bus ticket collector, Alfie Byrne. It’s 1964. Middle-aged Byrne still lives with his older, unmarried, conservative sister Lily (theater treasure Mare Winningham). She’s devoted, but impatiently hoping to marry butcher Mr. Carney (Thom Sesma) when no longer responsible for Alfie. Lily and Carney put her brother’s strange, solitary behavior down to too many books – with a gem of a duet performed by actors with pitch perfect comic timing.
Well read beyond circumstances, Alfie is a repressed virgin whose raison d’être is the St. Imelda’s Players, an amateur theater group he helms with pretensions to “art.” Productions (the last was Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest) might be haphazard, but his neighbors love the spotlight (each introducing him/herself to us with notable credits) while he derives satisfaction from exercising taste and basks in respect.
They are: Margaret Grace (the always welcome Mary Beth Peil), best remembered for her Saint Joan; stage manager James Michael “Baldie” O’Shay (William Youmans whose “The Cuddles Mary Gave” is utterly lovely); Ex-Peter Pan, Miss Oona Crowe (Alma Cuervo, who clearly knows her character); Mrs. Curtain (Kara Mikula); Mrs. Patrick (Jessica Tyler Wright); and Ernie Lally (Joel Waggoner).
A.J. Shively (Robbie) and Jim Parsons (Alfie)
Alfie reads poetry to his regular commuters every morning in part airing covert feelings for young, handsome driver, Robbie Fay (a terrific A.J.Shively, for whom the role seems tailor made). The protagonist imagines Robbie as his Bosie (the young man who drove Oscar Wilde to be outed). Robbie considers his co-worker a mate and keeps trying to get him to come to to pub and loosen up. On the occasion he does, the older man is recognized as gay and approached by Breton Beret (D’a Von T. Moody). He bolts.
Alfie excitedly announces their next show will be Wilde’s Salome. (The ghost of Wilde occasionally appears to him in an advisory capacity.) “That’s the play with immodest dancin’ in it!” anxiously declares Margaret Grace. Reassured she won’t be cast as the 16 year-old virgin, the lady calms down. Alfie then watches Adele Rice board the bus with a suitcase. Kismet, there’s our star, he thinks. (Shereen Ahmed has a lovely lilt giving credible life to Wilde’s dialogue as well as that of Lynn Ahrens.)
Mare Winningham (Lily) and Thom Sesma (Mr. Carney)
When he approaches her with clumsy intensity, however, the young woman assumes she’s the subject of a joke. Adele counters Alfie’s explanation with her shyness and lack of acting experience. “They don’t raise dreamers in Roscommon, only onions and potatoes.” Still, she’ll likely never again have the opportunity to play a princess and handsome Robbie (assuming he’s talked into it) would be her Jokanaan.
Rehearsals begin. Mr. Carney finds the text “unadulterated filth”. He brings it to the attention of Father Kenny (Nathaniel Stampley) and the church board. The Players are ousted. Adele reveals a secret that compels her to leave the city. Robbie is caught in compromising circumstances, then disappears. Alfie goes back to the pub intending to act at last on “the love that dare not speak its name.” Results are disastrous. He’s exposed. Despite habitual prejudice, some things work out.
Thank gods CSC didn’t update this tender, engaging musical, rather treating it with affection and respect. While being in the closet is no longer as prevalent – at least in the United States – persecution and repression sadly abide. Even our laws don’t reflect the truth in humanitarian terms. Empathy rises from the audience like the inspired wheeze of an accordion during “The Cuddles Mary Gave.”
Jim Parsons (Alfie) and Mare Winningham (Lily)
Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty who have addressed widely diverse parameters in their collaborations, here give us a thoroughly appealing Irish meets theater sound and deceptively uncomplicated lyrics that say what’s meant with grace, specificity, and seeming lack of compromise. Terrence McNally delivers a sensitive, telling, economic libretto. A food critic often orders the omelet to judge a restaurant or as Stephen Sondheim wrote, “Anyone can whistle…why can’t I?” These are masters of their craft.
Jim Parsons’ interpretation of Alfie is less animated than Finney or Rees, both of whom were at times pixilated with enthusiasm. I miss that. The actor is a bit one note. He rarely smiles. We get to a point of possible devastation with little change.
The production is deft, gentle and entertaining, well worth tickets.
Dialect Coach Claudia Hill-Sparks has more success with some of the cast than others. Mare Winningham is marvelous while Jim Parsons fades in and out.
Costumes by Ann Hould-Ward are entirely realistic, even bearing signs of long wear. Each ensemble personifies a character.
Orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin handled by music director Caleb Hoyer are top flight utilizing a small number of evocative instruments to best advantage. “The Streets of Dublin” is memorable. Sun Hee Kil’s sound design is pristine.
Commendation to The Telsey Office Casting for a symbiotic, talented cast who bear a wonderful assortment of faces.
Photos by Julieta Cervantes
Classic Stage Company presents
A Man of No Importance
Based on the film A Man of No Importance produced by Little Bird
Book -Terrence McNally
Music – Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics – Lynn Ahrens
Directed and Designed by John Doyle
Through December 13, 2022
Classic Stage Company
136 east 13th Street