It's clear from the opening musical number that Alfie, the title character in A Man of No Importance, will revel in some qualified greatness before the wild Irish drumbeats fade and the final curtain drops on a play that is so self-consciously bittersweet it sometimes teeters on the brink of self-parody. The musical is based on the critically acclaimed film A Man of No Importance, which was essentially a fusion of the Capra classic It's a Wonderful Life and Paddy Chayefsky's Marty but set in the hardscrabble world of 1960s Dublin and given the queerest sort of twist.
Alfie is a bus conductor who spends his lonely days tearing tickets, reciting dramatic passages from the poems and plays of his favorite Irish author, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Will Wilde, and fending off his older sister's obsession with his extended bachelorhood. The equally obsessive Alfie insists on using the playwright's full name and spends every waking moment planning a production of Salome, his literary hero's most scandalous play.
Alfie absolutely must exhaust all of his energies in fictional worlds because a gay man can catch nothing but hell in the conservative reality of Catholic Dublin. He preaches a gospel of "love who you love" but grumbles sometimes about another love that "dare not speak its name." He's a victim of frequent Freudian slips and calls his secret crush "Bosie" and his oppressor "Queensbury." He sometimes looks into the mirror and sees Wilde staring back at him, with a green carnation in his buttonhole and a well-worn aphorism on his lips. If it sounds awkward, forced, and heavy-handed, that's because it is.
A Man of No Importance has more gravitas than the average musical and an upsetting climax that nearly knocks all the feel-goodiness out of an ending that was only happy-ish to begin with. Though raucous Irish folk melodies give the score quite a kick, too much incidental music interferes with the storytelling. Lyrics are sung slowly and mournfully when they beg to be spoken quickly and quietly. Complex yearnings are distilled into Hallmark greetings. A certain familiarity with Wilde's life is absolutely required.
Dave Landis is irresistible, but he makes his Alfie too good to be believed. He's all smiles and patience and bookish secondhand wisdom. In his never-ending season of discontent, this Alfie has found something akin to peace. His longing for a young bus driver is all sweetness and self-loathing when it should be desperate and stunted like a flower forced to grow in the shade. Still, Landis, who, like many of his castmates, seemed to be working out some kinks in the show, is perfectly cast in a role that could have been written for him. Even where he misses, he misses well.
Christina Wellford Scott and Ron Gephart have been cast as Alfie's sister and her boyfriend, a theatrically inclined butcher. They are clowns and also the show's de-facto villains who discover the awfulness of their bigotry after an unavoidable bloodletting. Gephart's broad strokes don't mesh particularly well with Scott's earthy crabbiness, but when the couple sing about the manifold evils of literacy, God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.
Though the music too often gets in the way, there are some memorable songs and a few knock-out performances. Barry Fuller plays Baldy, a retired bartender whose beloved Mary was a big, big woman before she died. "The Cuddles Mary Gave" is a tragicomic gem, and like a proper Irish songster, Fuller jerks every silly tear. As Robbie, the hunky object of Alfie's unspoken desires, Andrew Weir has the show's best number, "The Streets of Dublin." Robbie's song is a Pogues-meets-Broadway description of simple city folk and a poetical, proletarian response to Alfie's high-minded yammering about art, beauty, and books. When Weir sings, "The lights in the park look like God after dark," we are reminded that the Emerald Isle's greatest writers borrowed from the colorful sayings of the Irish street.
The supporting cast, each actor taking on a variety of roles, tends to phone in cartoonish performances built on funny faces and classic shtick, and that's too bad. Dublin is a character in this musical too, and much of its success depends on the vividness of these faces as they emerge from the crowd. Instead, we get bulging eyes, silly walks, and Irish accents that range from pretty darn convincing to absurd and utterly unintelligible.
A note to directors everywhere: If you have an actor who can't handle an accent, DROP IT! It's easier to suspend our disbelief if we can understand what an actor is saying. This should really go without saying. •
Through October 10th at Circuit Playhouse