Community theater is too often a downfall – a shorthand for bad theater and a way for those working in the professional arena to distance themselves from the lives they might have had if not for a bit of luck. This attitude ignores the real benefits of community theater. The theater is just the pretext for a group of like-minded souls to come together and create something precious and ephemeral. In 2022, people are overwhelmingly turning to the internet in search of a tribe; and the thing they create, if anything, is memes.
Thus, the takeover of Classic Stage Company from A man of no importance serves as a timely reminder that there are still offline alternatives, just as there have always been tiny sanctuaries of mainstream culture. Based on the 1994 film and written by the team behind Ragtime (composer Stephen Flaherty, lyricist Lynn Ahrens, writer Terrence McNally), A man of no importance is a heartfelt love letter to community theater and an intimate look at one man’s private despair.
He’s Alfie Byrne (Jim Parsons), a Dublin bus driver who reads Oscar Wilde poems to his passengers by day and conducts Wilde’s plays in a church basement by night. After that, he returns to the house he shares with his sister, Lily (Mare Winningham), to cook her a dinner of Spaghetti Bolognese, far too exotic for his Irish taste buds. But Alfie tries with Lily, just as he tries to entice her handsome bus driver, Robbie (AJ Shively), to join his troupe. He tries to persuade young Adele Rice (Shereen Ahmed) to play the title role in his next production of Salome. And he tries to convince Father Kenny (Nathaniel Stampley) that the play is art, not blasphemy (it helps that the priest never bothers to read the script).
Deeply confined and immaculate, Alfie indulges in his obsessions as much to distract himself from his sexual urges as to escape the parochial society that was Ireland in the early 1960s. It’s hard not to admire his perseverance, even though you can see how it will all fall apart before it even happens.
It’s the first time A man of no importance has been revived in New York since its 2002 debut at Lincoln Center. Reviews for this original series were lukewarm, perhaps because we were still in the early years of the internet and hadn’t yet reached the outer limits of liberal atomization (which would arrive with the 2020 pandemic) . A new frontier of community and connection seemed to stretch out before us. And even after accounting for the cynical homophobia of the Bush administration, gay people could be convinced that Alfie’s loneliness was something we could leave behind in the 20th century, which certainly must have made this story a shot of molasses. It’s anything but.
Parsons, who played a completely different kind of tortured homosexual in band boys, gives Alfie a presence that is both bossy and incredibly vulnerable. He observes the world intently, seeing things most people don’t in their daily hustle and bustle: while Alfie is often required to stand on stage and watch someone else sing, Parsons turns those moments into revelations; we know he listens and absorbs everything. But he remains willfully oblivious to himself, and in doing so, he replaces an entire generation of internet users – brimming with information, but unable to translate it into a better life.
The supporting performances are equally thoughtful: Winningham is sweet, goofy, and just a tad intense as the Curious Sister. She has great chemistry with Thom Sesma, who plays butcher and amateur comedian Mr. Carney. When Lily mentions that her brother loves puppets, he replies, “Hand puppets or puppetsThat last word drips with suspicious disdain, lubricating the track for the song “Books” (easily throwaway, but masterful here).
Shively is irresistibly charming as Robbie, delivering a powerfully understated take on “The Streets of Dublin.” Ahmed is shimmering and stealthy as the new girl in town with a secret. William Youmans is touchingly rough as widower Baldy O’Shea. And as a beret-wearing mysterious man, newcomer Da’Von T. Moody forcefully demonstrates that Alfie’s perception of the world isn’t wrong, just that the world is incredibly cruel to those who really see it. – who wouldn’t follow that smile coming here in the dark?
The musical also benefits from the direction of John Doyle, who stepped down as artistic director of Classic Stage in June, and leaves the company with this wonderful parting gift. His signature actor-musician style works particularly well in a story set around a community theater (in which there’s always at least one guy with an acoustic guitar). The actors move gracefully through space, their instruments playing important roles (a drum becomes Robbie’s steering wheel, and an accordion creates the heavy breathing of a particularly tense moment). Inventiveness is everywhere, a muslin curtain becoming a bed sheet and the stairs around the theater expanding the play space.
We watch Alfie’s memories unfold in the form of rehearsal: Doyle’s set design, consisting mostly of wooden folding chairs, allows the scenes to transform instantly. Clever lighting designer Adam Honoré hangs nine practical lamps (the “park lamps” referenced in the score) above the push stage, but instantly immerses the stage in the red of the presbytery for an encounter with the archbishop. We can smell the hibernian humidity in Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes, offering flashes of muted green and almost synthetic fabric. Basically, sound designer Sun Hee Kil and music director Caleb Hoyer solved the sonic balance issues that plagued the production of last season of killers. Every word is crystal clear.
It’s a blessing, because A man of no importance is an underrated musical that deserves a second audition in this town. It’s not just about a man, but how the community can both oppress and uplift him. In 2022, with our rainbow of sects and fragmented tribes, we still haven’t broken free from this dynamic.