By Grayson Barnes
WICHITA - A Man of No Importance saw its state and regional premier Feb. 17-19 at the Wichita Scottish Rite Signature Theatre. It won the 2003 Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and a 2003 GLAAD Media Award. The second collaboration for Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music), and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), A Man of No Importance is based on the 1994 Albert Finney movie of the same name. Originally, it opened in September 2002, at the Lincoln Center in New York.
A Man of No Importance is set in Ireland in the 1960’s and focuses on the life of bus conductor Alfie Byrne. His life is mundane, except for his obsession with the works of Oscar Wilde. He also directs the amateur actors’ troupe at St. Imelda Parish. Alfie is of indeterminate age, but probably too old to be living with his sister. He has a service job and he is bookish. These are all qualities that make him the type of person who is easily overlooked, but Alfie shares his ‘Wilde’ passion with the passengers by reading the author’s works to them between the stops.
As the director of the St. Imelda Players, Alfie decides it is time for them to stage Salome, one of Wilde’s racier plays. This gets the troupe booted out of the church by the Monsignor. In this respect, A Man of No Importance doesn’t fully fit the “play-within-a-play” genre within which it is often classed, because Salome is quashed. We only see bits of the play, although we are amused by the other, ahem, ‘talents’ of the troupe as they create costumes and props.
The loss of the church venue throws Alfie into deep introspection. Wilde, as Alfie’s muse, becomes his foil for this, too. It is here Alfie admits that, like Wilde who was noted for his affairs with men, he is also affected by “the love that dare not speak its name.”
When Alfie attempts to find a gay hangout, he is beaten and robbed. Although he is rescued by a police officer, his secret is out and he is marked as a homosexual. Alfie’s sister, Lily, is angry with him. He takes her ire as rejection, when in fact, Lily is really upset because Alfie didn’t take her into his confidence. She admits that no matter what, she “will always love him anyway.”
And, just like Alfie, other community members have secrets. Adele, chosen to be the virginal Salome, is pregnant. Robbie, the man Alfie pines after, is having a passionate affair with an older married woman. Some have different burdens. One older man is widowed, Alfie’s sister is unmarried, one woman is narcissistic, and the butcher is a conflicted holier-than-thou Catholic.
Luckily the story has a happy ending, and the people in his life ultimately support Alfie. His message to them as they revealed themselves was “love who you love,” as well as be who you are. In turn, they accept Alfie because they didn’t want to lose THEIR muse. Better yet, the troupe gains a new member and they find another place to perform.
The cast for this performance of A Man of No Importance volunteered their services. Many of them are players of note in the community and beyond. The central characters included Dan E. Campbell as Alfie Byrne. Vonda Schuster played Lily Byrne, Alfie’s sister. Lydia Harbutz was Adele Rice. Ryan Schafer gave us Robbie Fay and Trevor Comstock came in as Oscar Wilde.
For me, Schuster’s Lily was the strongest of the crew. Most of the cast played at an uncharacteristically “flattening of affect” level. They seemed somewhat unprepared to deliver the play, missing cues, and struggling to work around some staging problems, like improperly placed set items and incorrectly raised scrims that revealed the ubiquitous theatre detritus backstage.
There were some sound snafus. I heard microphones crackling, which meant Ahrens’ astounding lyrics were lost to the audience. The actors were affecting Irish accents, which can be difficult enough, but in the Signature Theatre, an exceptional level of projection is a MUST – hard enough without an accent in this space – but singing created an additional challenge for the cast members’ voices.
Another conundrum was that Alfie should be, on one hand, a quiet guy, and on the other, someone who lights up when the words of his hero, Wilde, roll from his lips. I kept expecting to see this aesthetic range in Alfie’s character, because, after all, Wilde said life should be diverse and beautiful. However, Campbell plodded along in restraint.
I was initially intrigued by the minimalist set. A ziggurat of black-painted stairs with a red curtain underneath dominated the center. Cast members could enter the stage through the curtains, or use the stairs from either side. Eventually, I felt this structure was underutilized in favor of moving about smaller items like tables, chairs, boxes, a clothing rack, and a squadron of stools, which, while clever, distracted from the flow of the play.
The actors also moved off the stage and onto the floor in front of the audience. This can work well in this theatre, since the floor is flat, but those seated in the balcony (as I was), missed some of what was happening under the ledge.
I am familiar enough with A Man of No Importance to understand that it is more nuanced than campy. However, there are opportunities for intensity and, overall, those chances were missed in this delivery. The title of the play is meant to be ironic, because even a man of no importance can have a dramatic impact on his community. The night I attended, the irony was mostly lost. l