Welcome to Curtain Call, our mostly queer take on the latest openings on Broadway and beyond.
Jim Parsons won hearts during 12 seasons as Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory and now returns to the stage in a revival of A Man of No Importance. Based on the 1994 film of the same name and adapted into a stage musical in 2002 by Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music), and Lynn Ahrens (music), the work takes a dusty look at the life of a closeted gay man in 1960s Dublin.
John Doyle directs the Off-Broadway production at Classic Stage Company, relying on his signature sparsity, employing actor-musicians for several roles who meander with musical proficiency far exceeding their fleeting Irish accents.
No Tea, No Shade:
By the time Terrence McNally began working on A Man of No Importance, he had already established himself as one of the most prolific gay playwrights of the 20th century with queer-themed works, including The Ritz starring Rita Moreno (1975), The Lisbon Traviata starring Nathan Lane (1989), Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991), Kiss of the Spider Woman starring Chita Rivera (1993), and Love! Valour! Compassion! (1995).
In A Man of No Importance’s central character, Alfie Byrne (Jim Parsons), McNally and his co-authors craft a queer everyman struggling to come to terms with his identity through his involvement with an amateur theater troupe. Intent on staging Oscar Wilde’s Salome, Alfie convinces Adele (Shereen Ahmed), who’s just arrived in town carrying a secret, to join his eccentric group of players. Meanwhile, his older sister Lily (an earthy and spirited Mare Winningham) hopes to marry him off to the lass so she can get on with the local butcher Mr. Carney (Thom Sesma).
Alfie has little interest in Adele but quite fancies his co-worker, the young and handsome Robbie Fay (A.J. Shively). Herein lies Alfie’s deep, dark secret. Alfie calls upon an imaginary Oscar Wilde throughout the play, who advises, “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”
Those familiar with Doyle’s theatrical style (he had Patti LuPone play the tuba in a 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd) will recognize his familiar treatment, which often gets in the way of cluttered staging as the cast simultaneously juggles furniture and the score. Musically, Flaherty rarely reaches the emotional heights found in his previous songwriting collaborations, including Ragtime and Once on This Island. Nevertheless, “The Streets of Dublin” remains a standout, though Shively can’t vocally compete with the role’s originator Steven Pasquale.
Still, Parsons — with soft-spoken charm and an Irish accent by way of Houston, Texas, where the actor is originally from — unveils the musical’s primary theme: the struggle for self-acceptance that still resonates among many queer folks today.
Let’s Have a Moment:
Alfie, encouraged by Robbie to hit the local pub, ventures out with Wilde’s words of temptation lingering in his mind. But unfortunately, he runs into Breton Barot, “a bad sort” (a seductive Da‘Von T. Moody), who lures him into an alley behind the pub.
An accordion puffs in the background — a heaving soundscape of Alfie’s desire. Intimacy is just within reach for this self-described man of no importance, but the outcome turns tragic. Staged symbolically rather than literally, Parsons knows how to hold such delicate space instinctively. Having appeared onstage in revivals of The Normal Heart (2011) and The Boys in the Band (2018), Parsons continues to explore and conquer some of the great roles in the queer canon.
The Last Word:
Alfie Byrne’s Dublin circa 1964 is one in which contraception, abortion, and homosexuality are illegal. It wouldn’t be until 1982, after the murder of Declan Flynn in the city’s Fairview Park — a known gathering spot for gay men — that the community would begin to rally for LGBTQ rights and equality formally. Homosexuality wouldn’t be decriminalized until 1993.
A Man of No Importance, though occasionally sleepy, is part of our collective legacy. And while it doesn’t have the poetic mysticism of Angels in America, an alluring shower scene like Take Me Out, or the groundbreaking presence of A Strange Loop, it still tugs at our queer heartstrings, even if its multi-tasking actors are worse for wear.
A Man of No Importance plays Off-Broadway at Classic Stage Company through December 18.