Category: Archive

On the Aisle: A play of little importance

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Barry Devlin’s lackluster original screenplay, set in Dublin, circa 1964, dealt with a bus conductor besotted, consciously, by the writings of Oscar Wilde and, less consciously, by his homosexual lifestyle.
A deeply closeted, intensely repressed gay man, Alfie Byrne lives with his spinster sister, Lily, and devotes his primary energies to staging amateur theater productions of Wilde’s plays in the local church hall, with a little repertory company he’s created, mainly from the passengers he’s come to know as he punches his way to work in the morning and on their way home in the evening.
Alfie’s passion for Wilde is so all-consuming that he reads passages from his beloved idol’s prose and poetry to the members of his captive audience as the bus rattles through the streets of Dublin, this last phrase eventually becoming the title and subject of one of the weak score’s better songs.
Librettist-playwright Terrence McNally has, for good or ill, stuck fairly close to Devlin’s not so credible plotlines, just as the endeavor’s normally inventive director, Joe Mantello, appears to have handcuffed himself to the details of the old movie.
The film, to the extent that it worked at all, floated on the excellent performance of Albert Finney, who played Alfie, and on the strong supporting work turned in by such sterling actors as Michael Gambon, Brenda Fricker, Tara Fitzgerald and, particularly, by the then unknown Rufus Sewell, who played Robbie Fay, the handsome but relatively inexperienced young bus driver with whom the central character is unwise enough to fall in love, triggering his downfall, or at least, half of it.
The second portion of Alfie’s decline is triggered by his foolish selection of Wilde’s notorious “Salome” was hardly a suitable venture for presentation in the Social Hall of St. Imelda’s Roman Catholic Church in the Dublin of four decades past.
One of the problems at the chilly heart of Lincoln Center Theater’s unfortunate “musicalization” of the old film can be traced to inauspicious casting. Roger Rees, so memorable in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Nicholas Nickleby” 17 seasons ago, is a classically trained performer with a certain off-putting built-in dignity that undercuts the off-kilter madness that made Finney’s Alfie work.
What’s more, Rees seems to have little if any musical ability, which makes the Flaherty-Ahrens score come across even more drably than might be the case if a genuine singer had been cast in the leading role.
There are decent singers in Mantello’s cast, the most obvious among them being Faith Prince, who, as Alfie’s caretaker sister, Lily, does not come off very well in this instance. The inherent Broadway belter brassiness which served her so well in the most recent revival of “Guys and Dolls” virtually torpedoes her here, as it did when she took over from Blair Brown during the final months of the Broadway musical version of James Joyce’s “The Dead” a couple of years ago.
The only really creditable voice in the company belongs to Steven Pasquale, to whose Robbie is entrusted the aforementioned song, “The Streets of Dublin,” hardly an immortal number but one that stands out in the shows pale score by virtue of the promising young performer’s enthusiastic delivery of it.
If anyone else shines in the ill-utilized cast of “A Man of No Importance,” it’s probably Ronn Carroll as the widower, Baldy O’Shea, and possibly the admirable Charles Keating, appearing first as the stage-struck butcher, Carney, and then, bizarrely, as the shade of Oscar Wilde himself.
Reliable performers such as Jarlath Conroy, Katherine McGrath, Martin Moran, Michael McCormick, Patti Perkins and Sally Murphy are pretty much wasted here, as is the remarkable Jessica Molaskey, lost in a small role not in the film, but created by playwright McNally for this version of the story.
Molaskey, one of the city’s fastest-rising cabaret stars, deserves better treatment and better material than she has been accorded here.
There’s virtually no dancing in “A Man of no Importance,” which is puzzling, when you remember that even “The Dead” managed fragments of excellent dancework choreographed by the Sean Curran.
There is, however, a moment at the top of Act Two when onstage musicians and actors attempt a bit of authentic sounding Irish folk music, with Pasqule making a decent stab at qualifying on the bodhr

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