‘Man of No Importance’ a timid character study lacking Wilde passion

You wish this wholly tentative show gave the actors more to work with.

SHARE ‘Man of No Importance’ a timid character study lacking Wilde passion

Ryan Lanning (front) stars as Alfie in a scene from “A Man of No Importance,” with a cast that features Ryan Armstrong (back, from left) Tiffany Taylor, Jessica Lauren Fisher, Kevin O’Connell, Nick Arceo and Thomas Tong, and (background) Sarah Beth Tanner and Kimberly Lawson.

Heather Mall

Meet Alfie Byrne. He’s a middle-aged bachelor living with his sister in 1964 Dublin. Though he’s never really dated, he has two great loves: Oscar Wilde and the theater.

Alfie spends his days reading Wilde’s poetry to the adoring passengers from whom he takes tickets as a bus conductor; by night, he directs many of those same passengers in amateur productions of Wilde’s plays at the local parish hall. He also dotes on his coworker Robbie Fay, the handsome young gent who drives his bus, whom Alfie lovingly refers to as “my Bosie.”

If I told you at this point that Alfie harbored a secret, I suspect you’d get it right on the first guess. That would put you ahead of the characters surrounding Alfie in this modest musical, almost all of whom seem oblivious to the existence of the love that dare not speak its name.

‘A Man of No Importance’

man of no importance

When: Through Nov. 10

Where: Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway

Tickets: $30–$40

Info: pridefilmsandplays.com

Run time: 2 hours 25 minutes, with one intermission

That phrase, of course, comes from a poem by Wilde’s young lover Lord Alfred Douglas, nicknamed Bosie; the line was used against Wilde in his trial for gross indecency. But these Wilde-loving Dubliners are curiously ignorant of these facts, too — or else they’re willfully ignorant, determined to maintain Alfie’s innocence.

And Alfie is innocent: He’s lived a drably celibate life, never once acting on his attraction to men, nor speaking it aloud to anyone but his mirror. As he says, “I’ve never been close enough to anyone to so much as rub up against them, let alone put a hand on them.” But his crush on Robbie, along with his plan to retire “The Importance of Being Earnest” to stage Wilde’s salacious “Salome,” set in motion events that will force Alfie to acknowledge his truth.

But then, events isn’t quite the right word. “A Man of No Importance” is adapted from a 1994 Irish film of the same name, in which Albert Finney starred as Alfie. It’s one of a number of quirky British and Irish indies that have inspired stage musicals this century, including “The Full Monty,” “Billy Elliott,” “Once” and “Kinky Boots.”

Compared to those other movies, though, “A Man of No Importance” isn’t exactly eventful. It’s a sentimental character study and a cozy, nostalgic portrait of Dublin; the film works largely due to the performances of Finney and a stable of great Irish character actors like Brenda Fricker, Michael Gambon and Anna Manahan. But plotwise, not a lot happens.

Perhaps that explains why the musical feels so listless, despite its impressive pedigree. The project, which premiered at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater in 2002, reunited book writer Terrence McNally with the songwriting team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. Just four years earlier, they had won the Tony Awards for book and score of a musical for “Ragtime,” their enormously successful distillation of E.L. Doctorow’s dense historical novel.

But where “Ragtime” gave this team an enormous cast of characters and a great many lively plotlines to work with, the quiet earnestness of “Importance” stymies them. Flaherty’s featherweight score and Ahrens’s bland lyrics evaporate from memory almost instantly, while McNally struggles with the through line. A half-hearted framing device that suggests the story is being acted out in flashback by Alfie’s troupe of actors is perplexing, and relationships among the various characters aren’t well established.

Some of the latter might be attributable to Donterrio Johnson’s choppy staging of this Pride Films & Plays production. Scene transitions are often confusing stage-traffic jams, important moments are muddled by odd choices, and most of the supporting cast seems to have been directed to aim for broad comedy. (The range of approaches to Irish dialect is also broad.)

There are bright spots, though, and thankfully one of them is Ryan Lanning’s performance as Alfie. Lanning played Robbie Fay in a production at the old Bailiwick Repertory Theatre in 2008, which I also saw. Then as now, I thought he outshone the material; here, he has a lock on Alfie’s core dignity, even if his boyish features don’t quite match the picture of a man who’s let his life pass him by.

Lanning isn’t the only repeat performance from that earlier production; music director Robert Ollis also reprises his role here, and the five-piece band makes Flaherty’s tunes sound lovely, if forgettable.

Actors Nick Arceo, as Robbie Fay, and Ciera Dawn, as the new girl in town who Alfie picks to play Salome, make the most of their underwritten parts. You wish this wholly tentative show gave them more. But the title character’s timidity seems to have rubbed off on the script.

Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.

The Latest
The Sun-Times’ experts offer their picks for Sunday’s bottom-feeder battle at Soldier Field:
Duke has a chance to reach 5-0 for the first time since winning the first seven games of the 1994 season.
Lawyers for James T. Weiss asked a judge to give him a prison sentence of less than 27 months, arguing the bill Weiss wanted to pass would have generated at least one penny in tax revenue on each transaction on so-called sweepstakes machines.
Although the Potter role raised Gambon’s international profile and introduced him to a new generation of fans, he had long been recognized as one of Britain’s leading actors.
Wife thought the object of his affections was out of their lives forever, but now she has re-emerged.