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A CurtainUp Review
A Man Of No Importance
By Elyse Sommer
But if Lincoln Center hoped A Man of No Importance would turn into another Contact, their last phenomenally successful intimate musical, their hopes were quickly dashed by so-so audience word of mouth and less than ecstatic reviews from first night critics. That's a pity. While not a flawless gem, neither is A Man of No Importance so fatally flawed that its charms will be lost on anyone who appreciates unpretentious, character-driven musical theater. If people don't leave the theater humming even the best songs it's because despite enough songs (16, not counting reprises) to qualify as a full-fledged musical, this is less a traditional musical than a play that uses song as part of the dialogue.
As with his other film-based musical, The Full Monty, book writer Terrence McNally has not only kept the title of his inspirational source, but stuck closely to the story line. In the musical, as in the movie, we're again in a working class neighborhood of Dublin in the early 1960s when sexual attitudes, especially in this sort of milieu, still tended to be confusing and contained.
The title character is Alfie Byrne (Roger Rees), a middle-aged man whose spinster sister (Faith Prince) feels she can't marry until he has a wife to take care of him, even though he's the one who cooks their meals. Alfie's yearnings for a less circumscribed life finds release in reciting poetry to the bus passengers (despite constant complaints from his supervisor about the bus running late) and directing plays for the amateur thespians at the local church. His favorite poet and playwright is Oscar Wilde so the audience guesses well before any of the characters on stage, that Alfie is never going to get married -- at least not to a woman.
The plot trigger that forces Alfie to finally face his sexuality requires a certain willingness to accept the illogical premise that anyone who knows Wilde as well as Alfie does would not realize that Salome -- long prone to immorality accusations -- would be certain to cause trouble in a conservative church environment. However, the very illogic of this play within the play idea removes the need for a surprise ending and makes the flashback that begins and ends with Alfie packing his theatrical belongings in the church theater from which he's been ousted (and outed) an ideal framing device.
Roger Rees's dark good looks might be a problem for making Alfie convincingly "unimportant" but Rees is terrific in the part, the yearning in his face when he looks at the hunky object of his unexpressed passion unmistakably moving. His not being pudgy and unattractive actually buttresses his upbeat "Welcome to the World" finale since you can more easily picture a life with romantic interest as well as friends than for the Alfie as played by Albert Finney.
What does make Rees's good looks problematic is some lazy lyric writing and directorial oversight in Joe Mantello's otherwise commendable first effort at helming a musical. Both Ahrens and Mantello should have anticipated criticism of miscasting by adjusting the "Man in the Mirror" number in which the trim Rees, his black hair without a trace of a bald spot, sings about his "thickening body" and "thinning hair.."
This brings me to the music generally. While a nice blend of Irish folk song and musical theater pop, it has just one major break out song, "The Streets of Dublin". (spectacularly well sung by Steven Pasquale, who, as in Spitfire Grill, again himself to be an appealing leading man. There are several other nice musical moments:
A Man of No Importance probably doesn't have what Broadway calls "the legs" to carry it beyond its limited run, though I can envision a life beyond New York -- where you have just a little more than a month to see whether you agree with me that it has more to recommend than reprimand it.
LINKS TO REVIEWS OF PLAYS MENTIONED
The Full Monty
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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