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Review: Jim Parsons Stars in a Charming Revival of A Man of No Importance

The Ahrens-Flaherty-McNally musical gets a second hearing off-Broadway.

Jim Parsons stars in the off-Broadway revival of A Man of No Importance, directed by John Doyle, at Classic stage Company.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

Community theater is too often a punchline — shorthand for bad theater and a way for those working on the professional stage to distance themselves from the lives they might have led without a bit of good fortune. This attitude ignores the real benefit community theater offers. The theater is just the pretext for a group of likeminded souls to come together and create something precious and ephemeral. In 2022, people mostly turn to the Internet in search of a tribe; and the thing they create, if anything, is memes.

So the Classic Stage Company revival of A Man of No Importance serves as a timely reminder that there are still offline alternatives, just as there have always been tiny sanctuaries from the dominant culture. Based on the 1994 film and written by the team behind Ragtime (composer Stephen Flaherty, lyricist Lynn Ahrens, book writer Terrence McNally), A Man of No Importance is a heartfelt love letter to community theater and an intimate look at the private desperation of one man.

That's Alfie Byrne (Jim Parsons), a Dublin bus conductor who reads poems by Oscar Wilde to his passengers by day and directs Wilde's plays in a church basement by night. After that, he returns to the home he shares with his sister, Lily (Mare Winningham), to make her a dinner of spaghetti Bolognese, which is far too exotic for her Irish tastebuds. But Alfie tries with Lily, just as he tries to coax his handsome bus driver, Robbie (A.J. Shively), into joining his troupe. He tries to persuade the fresh-faced Adele Rice (Shereen Ahmed) to play the title role in his forthcoming production of Salomé. 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 closeted and pristinely celibate, Alfie indulges his obsessions as much to distract himself from his sexual urges as to escape the parochial society that is Ireland in the early 1960s. It's hard not to admire his perseverance, even if we can see how this is all going to fall apart before it even comes together.

Shereen Ahmed (left) plays Adele Rice in A Man of No Importance, directed by John Doyle, at Classic Stage Company.
(© Copyright 2022 Julieta Cervantes)

This is the first time A Man of No Importance has been revived in New York since its 2002 debut at Lincoln Center. The reviews for that original run were lukewarm, perhaps because we were still in the early years of the Internet and had not yet reached the outer limits of liberal atomization (that 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 Bush administration's cynical homophobia, gay men could be confident that Alfie's loneliness was something we could leave behind in the 20th century, which certainly must have made this story seem like a treacly cliché. It is anything but.

Parsons, who played a very different kind of tortured homosexual in The Boys in the Band, gives Alfie a presence that is both authoritative and incredibly vulnerable. He observes the world intently, seeing things that most people ignore in their daily hustle: While Alfie is often made to stand onstage and watch as someone else sings, Parsons turns these moments into revelations; we know that he's listening and absorbing everything. But he remains willfully unaware of himself, and in that way, he stands in for an entire generation of Internet lurkers — brimming with information, but incapable of translating that into a better life.

Mare Winningham plays Lily Byrne, and Thom Sesma plays Mr. Carney in A Man of No Importance at Classic Stage Company.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

The supporting performances are just as thoughtful: Winningham is sweet, kooky, and just a little bit intense as the nosy sister. She has great chemistry with Thom Sesma, who plays the butcher and amateur thespian Mr. Carney. When Lily mentions that her brother likes puppets, he responds, "Hand puppets or marionettes?" The latter word drips with suspicious disdain, lubricating the runway from the song "Books" (easily a throwaway, but masterful here).

Shively is irresistibly charming as Robbie, delivering a powerfully understated rendition of "The Streets of Dublin." Ahmed is shimmeringly furtive as the new girl in town with a secret. William Youmans is touchingly gruff as the widower Baldy O'Shea. And as a mysterious man in a beret, newcomer Da'Von T. Moody makes a powerful case 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 come-hither smile into the darkness?

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 dude with an acoustic guitar). Actors move gracefully through the 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 abounds, with a muslin curtain becoming a bedsheet and the stairs around the theater expanding the playing space.

Jim Parsons leads the cast of A Man of No Importance, directed by John Doyle, at Classic stage Company.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

We watch Alfie's memories play out in the form of a rehearsal: Doyle's set design of mostly wooden folding chairs allows scenes to instantly transform. Clever lighting designer Adam Honoré hangs nine practical lamps (the "lamps in the park" referenced in the score) over the thrust stage, but instantly plunges the scene into rectory red for a meeting with the archbishop. We can feel the Hibernian dampness in Ann Hould-Ward's costumes, offering flashes of muted green and nary a synthetic fabric. Crucially, sound designer Sun Hee Kil and music director Caleb Hoyer have solved the sound balance issues that plagued last season's production of Assassins. Every lyric is crystal clear.

That's a blessing, because A Man of No Importance is an underrated musical that deserves a second hearing in this town. It's not just about one man, but the ways community can both oppress and uplift him. In 2022, with our rainbow of fragmented sects and tribes, we still haven't broken free from that dynamic.