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Balancing art, reality in 1964 Ireland


By the end of “A Man of No Importance,” Alfie Byrne has been transformed, but it’s not by the theatricals he has devotedly directed in his Dublin church hall. It is, rather, by opening himself to reality that Byrne is changed.

Roger Rees as Byrne and Faith Prince as his older maiden sister, Lily, head a cast of 16. The musical theater gifts of Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), who last collaborated so beautifully on the 1998 Broadway musical version of “Ragtime,” are brought together again for this new off-Broadway musical, based on the 1994 movie of the same name. It runs at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in New York through Dec. 29.

Set in 1964, “A Man of No Importance” tells the story of Byrne, a middle-aged bus conductor and repressed homosexual who is devoted to Oscar Wilde. He lives a quiet life with Lily, getting his great pleasure directing an amateur theater group, the St. Imelda Players. His controlled life is shaken, however, after he gets into trouble with church authorities when he plans to stage Wilde’s risqué play “Salome,” complete with the seductive dance of the seven veils.

Byrne’s love for Wilde isn’t limited to the plays he directs. He also reads Wilde’s poetry to his bus passengers, brightening their dreary, often rainy, mornings. In the opening number, “A Man of No Importance,” they sing of the “poetry and art in the air” as, thanks to Byrne, “the bus becomes something more than a bus” and “a day is now something more than a day.”

Church members also are lifted out of their worlds in what Byrne calls “losing yourself in someone else.” The butcher, Mr. Carney (Charles Keating), can’t wait to get back on stage, hoping to reprise his role as Algernon in “The Importance of Being Earnest.” “Me soul needs the exercise,” he says excitedly. Other church hall thespians join him in “Going Up,” a number in which they envision themselves as acclaimed performers.

Carney is disappointed to learn the group will be doing a play he’s never heard of, “Salome,” but is appeased when he learns he’ll be playing John the Baptist, whom he considers “the first Roman Catholic priest, practically.”

After reading the play, however, Carney is appalled and calls a special Sodality meeting at which the monsignor tells Byrne the production is canceled. Even before this, though, Byrne has been questioning his life. In “Man in the Mirror,” he wonders “Why should someone care for you when you care so little for yourself?” and he sees “the dead eyes of a man who doesn’t know who he is.” He conjures up Wilde (Keating in flamboyant purple cape and hat) for a personal conversation, asking him, “Who is this man with the thickening body riding his bus till his dying day?”

His awakening causes him to advise his play’s Salome (Sally Murphy), who is pregnant by a man who doesn’t love her, not to hold back, singing, “You just have to love who you love. … Who can tell you who to want? Who can tell you what you’re meant to be? … Then just go and love who you love.”

But when Byrne decides to follow this advice, encouraged by Wilde who tells him, “the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it,” he makes an advance on a young man and ends up beaten and robbed. Only then does he begin to find a life that balances art and reality.

The show’s theme has echoes in McNally’s life. The playwright is openly homosexual and was raised Catholic, although in Texas rather than Ireland. He found himself in trouble with church authorities, or more specifically the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and other Christian groups, for his 1998 play “Corpus Christi,” which featured a gay Christlike figure who had sex with his disciples (offstage).

While controversy over homosexuality might have been expected in 1964 Dublin, 1998 New York City proved the topic could still generate heat. After the Manhattan Theatre Club, a respected off-Broadway theatrical company, announced it was staging “Corpus Christi” as part of its season, protests from religious groups began. Theater officials even received death threats, causing them to announce the play’s cancellation. Immediately New York’s artistic community rose up with cries of censorship and the importance of protecting artistic freedom. The Manhattan Theatre Club reinstated the play, which sold out before it opened -- under tight security and to mixed-to-rotten reviews, proving once again that controversy can be good for business.

No protesters have shown up for “A Man of No Importance,” which nevertheless was playing to a full, appreciative house. Through the intimacy of an off-Broadway theater and the simplicity of staging, which amounts to little more than some straight chairs, a couple of tables and a few props, I felt a part of the St. Imelda’s group and their let’s-put-on-a-play enthusiasm. The humor of the lyrics and the uplifting Irish lilt in the music added to the fun.

In the closing song, “Welcome to the World,” Alfie sings of having watched the world roll past for too long. “Life is clearly something I can’t rehearse. … I am in the world and that should be enough and that’s all I have to say.” And that’s all he needs to say. He doesn’t have to be a man of great importance. He’s a man who knows who he is, and that, indeed, is enough.

Retta Blaney’s latest book, Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors, will be published next year by Sheed & Ward.

For more information

Lincoln Center Theater
(212) 239-6200

National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 2002