In his final act as Artistic Director of Classic Stage Company, John Doyle is staging a production of the lesser-known Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty/Terrence McNally musical A Man of No Importance. In many ways, this production is indicative of Doyle’s run at Classic Stage. He staged more musicals at the theatre on East 13th Street than any of his predecessors and, as a result, examined the definition of a “classic” play. Whatever the ups and downs of his work in years past, A Man of No Importance is a definite highlight in his tenure, and a great way to say goodbye.
Alfie Byrne (Jim Parsons) is a bus conductor in Dublin in 1964 trying to stage an amateur production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome with the ragtag band of commuters who take his transport every morning. He lives with his sister, Lily (Mare Winningham), and both are unmarried. Lily is fending off the proposal of her butcher beau, Mr. Carney (Thom Sesma), because she can’t leave Alfie until he finds a wife. Trouble is: Alfie, like his hero Wilde, has a penchant for the love that dare not speak its name.
Doyle, who serves as his own set designer, has mostly worked on a wood plank thrust stage in this space, which is also the case here. In this instance, he has tacked up a series of reflective objects against the back wall, in front of which stand two Catholic statues. The mirrored back wall seems to say: look at yourself, Alfie Byrne. But in order to do that, he has to move past his Catholic shame. It’s a thoughtful piece of design work that is never blatantly addressed. Often, there are people standing in front of it, so it’s only there if you catch a glimpse of it. Alfie avoids self-examining until he has no choice but to look.
Doyle is deft at creating a sense of community amongst his acting ensembles. He frequently scales down larger productions to focus on the essentials and, in doing so, keeps everyone on stage, observing the proceedings. This constant presence creates a supportive, familial feel, which works especially well when it concerns the troupe of amateur actors in Alfie Byrne’s company. Doyle has cast this ensemble with incredible actor-singers, many of whom are stars in their own right. No less than Mary Beth Peil plays a secondary role as the star of Alfie’s company. Ahrens and Flaherty give these characters an introductory song (“Going Up”) that, verse-by-verse, tells us who they are and how they function within Alfie’s ecosystem. It recalls the opening of their previous musical, Ragtime. Does anyone do exposition better?
Jim Parsons isn’t quite able to capture Alfie’s magnetism. He’s friendly and a little warm, but it never coalesces into something more than that, something that would inspire these ordinary people to take the stage or, in the show’s final moments, come to his side in a time of need. Parsons struggles with the Irish accent; maybe his own notable voice is too much to take on anything else. The role does not require a heavy sing and Parsons makes do in that department. When Alfie is outed in a public and violent way towards the end of the show, Parsons’ performance becomes deeply felt. He has a scene with Winningham and a scene with Shereen Ahmed, as the woman playing Salome, in the musical’s last section that are movingly performed.
Winningham charms in Lily’s two comedy numbers: “The Burden of Life” and “Books”, a duet with Sesma. She brings out Lily’s tiredness, loneliness, and concern for her brother. As great as Parsons is in his final scene with her, Winningham is just as emotionally present and empathetic. As Robbie Fay, the bus driver on whom Alfie harbors a crush, A.J. Shively absolutely smashes the musical’s most popular number, “The Streets of Dublin”. He is an incredible talent, shining not just in his big solo song, but in all of the ensemble numbers as well. Coupled with his Tony-nominated work in Paradise Square, he’s someone to watch out for in the future.
Some of the ensemble play instruments, which we know to expect from Doyle, but it’s largely without consequence to the narrative. There is, however, a captivating moment as Alfie engages in his first homosexual overture. An accordian begins to expand and contract, issuing what sounds like deep, hollow, terrified breath. It’s as if we’re inside Alfie’s chest as he approaches a man outside a pub. When that encounter takes a turn, Doyle’s signature chairs are also employed to symbolize the violence against Alfie. They hit the stage floor with an extreme smack as Alfie is attacked in the street. Doyle’s bag of tricks is still open, but this time, the tricks feel more purposeful than they have in a while.
Doyle is not retiring from directing. I’m sure we’ll be seeing his work somewhere soon, but I’m glad he gets to leave Classic Stage on a high note. The space suited his aesthetic style very well, even if the results were mixed. The incoming Producing Artistic Director Jill Rafson has a background developing new plays. Maybe Classic Stage is in for another revamp, another era of redefining what makes a classic.