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Review by Charles Isherwood
October 10, 2002

Most musicals don't aim for the virtue of modesty, so there's something touching about the restrained ambitions of A Man of No Importance, an unabashedly minor-key new show from the creators of the vastly larger-scaled Ragtime. Here, book writer Terrence McNally, composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens tell an intimate story that aims merely to tug at a heartstring or two and raise a dozen wry chuckles. This they do with an almost effortless grace, aided by a director new to musicals, Joe Mantello, who proves a perfect fit for a show that draws much of its energy from the subtle but spirited participation of a superior cast. A Man of No Importance, based on the 1994 movie starring Albert Finney, will not knock the socks off anyone, and it is certainly not without its hoary or sentimental moments, but its gentle-hearted charms may well please musical theater lovers wanting a break from the bigger, brassier musical comedies flogging their glitzier attractions on Broadway.

The central character is Alfie Byrne (Roger Rees), a humble bus conductor in 1964 Dublin. Alfie's passion is poetry, and he daily regales the regulars on his route with dramatic readings. But the really big events in his life are the amateur theatrical productions he stages in the small social hall of the parish church, St. Imelda. Here Alfie and the other small-fry Dubliners who populate the show -- a butcher, a housewife, a retired publican -- get to escape from the crabbed limitations of their lives by participating with more heart than skill, perhaps, in what Alfie insists on referring to as "art."

They sing of the release they find in this pursuit in "Going Up," the energetic comic highlight of the first act, which has a mock-showbizzy jazz rhythm that Flaherty largely eschews in the rest of the score, which features soft-pedaled melodies and fine Irish-flavored orchestrations from William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke. The butcher Mr. Carney, embodied with flavorful gusto by Charles Keating, describes the thrill of leaving behind the workaday world ("Who gives a sausage then/for the orders of mortal men/when you're going up!"), and is joined by the rest of the ragtag St. Imelda's crew, all celebrating the liberation of life on the stage.

But Alfie himself is escaping from something more than his humble surroundings: He's trying to escape from his very self. A reverence for art isn't the only thing he has in common with his imagined mentor, Oscar Wilde (Keating again, swathed in a cape); Alfie is also homosexual, or would be if he could admit it to himself. His unspoken adoration of his handsome young co-worker Robbie Fay (Steven Pasquale) is as much a secret sadness to him as his inability to find a suitable wife is a source of less secret dissatisfaction to his sister Lily (Faith Prince). She lives with Alfie and has vowed, somewhat implausibly for 1964 Dublin, not to marry until he does.

Alfie's latest choice for the St. Imelda's players is Wilde's "Salome," and Alfie thinks he's found his heroine in a newcomer to the troupe, fresh-from-the-country Adele (Sally Murphy). If only he can convince Robbie to play John the Baptist, all will be well.

But this being small-minded Ireland, it isn't. After intermission, clouds gather quickly, and it is somewhat dispiriting to watch Alfie's quick humiliation and exposure at the hands of a thug and the consequences that attend it. The show's creators seem to buy into the notion that "the realm of the aesthetic," as Alfie puts it, speaking of Wilde, is a place of perfection in jarring contrast to the "sewer" of actual life, a hoary conception.

The sour developments of the second act also require some jagged changes of behavior that don't convince. Carney seems to be two different characters: the free-spirited stage ham of act one, and Lily's censorious suitor in act two (he's the one who blows the whistle on Alfie's salacious "Salome"). Lily herself moves from disapproving disgust to apparent acceptance of Alfie's sexuality in the course of a few bewildering choruses of a song. And Wilde or no Wilde, why must Alfie equate homosexuality with flamboyance, donning makeup and a swish when he finally works up the courage to express his sexuality? Because he must be degraded, so we can cluck sadly at his plight, seems to be the unfortunate answer.

If the creators of the show disappoint in following the trite and manipulative plot laid out by the movie, one can nevertheless admire the skill and polish they bring to its execution. Flaherty and Ahrens' score is always appealing, if rarely surprising. Its only flaw is that too many of the songs are cut from the same bolt of musical cloth: all gently lilting, shorn of ornamental choruses and flashy effects, subtly inflected with authentic Irish colorings.

The songs are neatly knit together with McNally's book, which includes a liberal helping of funny jokes (Alfie to priest: "Didn't you ever want to go on the stage, father?" "I do, every Sunday. It's called High Mass.") and is adept at delineating the show's superabundance of characters in quick strokes. The St. Imelda's players are all quickly and expertly drawn, for instance, and the first-rate actors who play them with verve and obvious affection never allow caricature to get the upper hand, even if they can't always keep quaintness at bay. (Neither, in truth, can the show as a whole.)

Playing a man for whom self-effacement is a necessity, Rees has an aptly light touch. The emotionally constricted Alfie is not the type to break into great gusts of song -- and is thus an odd duck to build a musical around -- so the limitations of Rees' singing are not a problem. Pasquale gives a nicely observed performance as Robbie, who is given his own secret source of sorrow as a spur to sympathy for Alfie. Only Prince, who is uncomfortably cast as the blinkered Lily, seems out of place here. (Katherine McGrath, fine as always in two small roles, is more the type.)

Prince can sometimes be caught scavenging for laughs with broadly comic line readings that rub against the grain of the show's muted tones. But it's hard to blame her: The aptly damp-looking set by Loy Arcenas, the subtle-toned, slightly worn costumes by Jane Greenwood and the excellent, vestigial-sunshine lighting by Donald Holder all help to establish a world where minor pleasures are the most that can be hoped for, and dreams are always being cut down to size. In this atmosphere of miniature satisfactions, it's easy to understand the desire to get a big, fat laugh.

Musical staging, Jonathan Butterell. Sets, Loy Arcenas; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Scott Lehrer; music direction, Ted Sperling; vocal arrangements, Flaherty; conductor, Rob Berman; orchestrations, William David Brohn, Christopher Jahnke; stage manager, Michael Brunner. Opened Oct. 10, 2002. Reviewed Oct. 5. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Musical numbers: "A Man of No Importance," "The Burden of Life," "Going Up," "Princess," "First Rehearsal," "The Streets of Dublin," "Books," "Man in the Mirror," "Love Who You Love," "Our Father," "Confession," "The Cuddles Mary Gave," "Art," "Confusing Times," "Tell Me Why," "Welcome to the World."