So many blockbuster musicals have been based on what were once considered unlikely prospects for such adaptation — Oklahoma! and My Fair Lady spring to mind — that the idea of converting the dark 1994 film A Man of No Importance into a tuner can’t be dismissed out of hand. But, once the decision has been made to transfer a property to the stage and have the characters lift their voices in song at the highest emotional moments, a passel of strong ideas that support the initial one must follow.
It’s grim to report that bookwriter Terrence McNally, composer Stephen Flaherty, and lyricist Lynn Ahrens have come up with so many incomplete, flat, often dismal notions in creating their version of A Man of No Importance. Indeed, audiences may have to jar themselves into recalling that these are the three who rearranged E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime into the magnificent musical of the same title. (Or did Ragtime producers Garth Drabinsky and Marty Bell ride herd so sternly on the creative trio that they weren’t allowed to let second- or third-best pass?)
The only sturdy impulse that anyone associated with A Man of No Importance seems to have had — and this includes busy-everywhere director Joe Mantello — was to cast Roger Rees in the title role. Playing a Dublin bus attendant who channels his homosexual desires into helming a drama group devoted to the works of Oscar Wilde (who else?), the long-jawed Rees seems to carry melancholy in his DNA. His impersonation of the doggedly naive Alfie Byrne tugs at the heart from his entrance, when he has already learned that his production of Salome(!) has been thrown out of St. Imelda’s social hall. The rue with which his heart is laden remains manifest through a flashback that shows how Alfie came to his (seemingly) final defeat. While Rees doesn’t have a great voice, he has a skilled actor’s ability to transmit a song’s strengths, and he uses the talent to make the
Ahrens-Flaherty material seem better than it is.
The rest of the cast members also exert themselves valiantly as Alfie’s story unfolds. Though Alfie never explains why he’s been thick-headed enough to select Wilde’s controversial Salome for an audience that apparently didn’t take to his previous offering of The Importance of Being Earnest, he talks Adele Rice (Sally Murphy), a newcomer to the city, into appearing as the princess. He tries to convince his bus company colleague Robbie Fay (Stephen Pasquale) into taking a role in the play as well, but the boy whom Alfie calls Bosie (a reference, of course, to Lord Alfred Douglas) declines. Others don’t need their arms twisted, and that includes butcher Carney (Charles Keating), who — in what may be the score’s only inspired song, “Going Up” — rejoices about returning to the boards but later, with little evident provocation, repudiates Alfie.
When he’s not putting his amateur troupe through their clumsy paces, Alfie cooks for his older sister, Lily (Faith Prince), and serves as an excuse for her not marrying Carney despite the butcher’s requests. Alfie also fights his urge to declare his love for Robbie or to declare his propensities to anyone; he is, in the post-Wildean atmosphere hovering over the Liffey in the mid 1960s, succumbing to a case of the love that dares not speak its name. But after Alfie has learned a few harmful truths about Robbie — who’s seeing the married Mrs. Patrick
(Jessica Molaskey) as well as Adele, who’s pregnant — he decides to follow the advice of Wilde, ignoring the less-than-pleasant facts of the great writer’s persecution for his homosexuality. Yes, Wilde appears quite literally to him with a “go for it” message. That’s when the truth about Alfie comes out.
Most of the narrative is lifted from Barry Devlin’s screenplay, but McNally has added a few theatrical flourishes that just don’t work. At their worst — trotting out Wilde, for example, or having a leering man in a beret appear repeatedly in Alfie’s path — they’re downright embarrassing. Tom Stoppard, allowing Wilde to materialize The Invention of Love and putting words in the famous man’s mouth, does so with wit; McNally doesn’t. The ubiquitous playwright/librettist (how recently was Dead Man Walking seen in another theater at Lincoln Center?) also goes through the motions of heightening the flesh-versus-spirit aspects of Devlin’s scenario, but the anti-Catholic-repression theme that emerges is ludicrously leaden-footed. This tangent is further pursued in a second-act opener that Mantello and musical stager Jonathan Butterell have concocted. During it, the not-so-virginal Adele has to writhe on the floor while Mrs. Patrick prays before votive candles and the bar boys beat drums. (Saints preserve us!)
More shocking to aficionados who’ve listened with delight to the earlier Ahrens-Flaherty scores for Lucky Stiff and Once on This Island is the ineptitude of the songs they’ve contributed in helping to turn a 97-minute movie into something gloomier and more sentimental that runs more than two hours. Flaherty has often said he likes to prepare for writing by immersing himself in genre music. For this project, he presumably listened to Irish ditties, which are among the most heart-rending in the global canon. The result of his research: a succession of ersatz Irish melodies, arranged with predictable instrumentation by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke. Ahrens’s lyrics are couplet-laden but contain nothing that might be called poetic Irish lilt. More damaging to the musical is the pair’s inserting a song at the wrong time, or giving it to the wrong person, or writing it once and writing it again. Curiously, for instance, they have Alfie sing a number called “Love Who You Love” to Adele, when having it sung by Adele to Alfie would make more sense. (The tunesmiths might argue that, in expressing the sentiment, Alfie is trying to convince himself, but that point fails to be made.)
With the material handed them and with Mantello unable to improve it through sleight-of-hand direction, the cast does what it can. It should be noted that this is mostly a cast of striving over-40s, but both the vets and the youngsters do plenty to burnish the proceedings. Faith Prince as Lily and Charles Keating as Carney put something of a glow on their dialogue and songs, particularly a comedy item called “Books.” Keating is required to don a sweeping, wine-colored robe and wide-brimmed hat for his appearances as Oscar Wilde and he carries out his orders without visibly balking. Steven Pasquale’s Robbie is, correctly, as un-Bosiean as could be imagined; and Sally Murphy, absent those writhing-on-the-floor moments, is a delicate, troubled Adele. The members of the design team also acquit themselves well: costumer Jane Greenwood, lighting designer Donald Holder, sound designer Scott Lehrer and, especially, set designer Loy Arcenas, whose social hall comes complete with beautifully wrought beams.
With A Man of No Importance, André Bishop and Bernard Gersten have mounted another musical that might have been titled Thou Shalt Not. In both instances, it isn’t so much that the creators shouldn’t have — but, if they were going to, they might have tried a good deal harder. What’s it all about, Alfie?