Plano — In spite of what Broadway and Hollywood keep trying to tell us, life is not made up of happy endings. A Man of No Importance, the Terrence McNally/Stephen Flaherty/Lynn Ahrens musical currently playing at Plano’s Brick Road Theatre, brings that message to the fore with humor, intellect, beautifully rich language (both borrowed and original), and an engagingly fine performance from an ensemble of topnotch talent.
The plot and a very large portion of the dialogue of A Man of No Importance originated in the 1994 film, starring Albert Finney, with an original screenplay by Barry Devlin (and title parodying Oscar Wilde’s play A Woman of No Importance). For the musical, which ran off-Broadway to much acclaim in 2002, McNally, one of the reigning gods of American theater, revised the script slightly, preserving all the main plot elements and most of the principal scenes, while throwing in a generous supply of McNallyisms and additional quotes from Wilde. Composer Flaherty (Ragtime, Seussical, Once on this Island) provided the sweet, heavily Irish-accented score (appropriate for a play set in Dublin in 1963), and Ahrens, Flaherty’s longtime collaborator, supplied the unfailingly smooth and clever lyrics for the seamlessly integrated songs.
The result is a deftly stitched tapestry that manages to be a parable of the redemptive power of art, a tribute to Wilde, a very funny and touching musical, and a monument to those whose search for love falls outside the rules of an oppressive society. Although the last element focuses on a latent homosexual in the sexually oppressive culture of Ireland in the 1960s (not so different, in those regards, from Texas at that same moment), the Devlin-McNally subplots make clear that this oppression burdens others as well—here represented by the handsome young bus driver in love with a married woman, and the small-town girl, pregnant and abandoned by the father of her child.
A lonely flute melody and a toweringly stunning monologue from Wilde’s Salome open the play, setting a tone of linguistic grandeur and simple but touching musicality. In a dream-like flashback, the principal character, Alfie Byrne, a city bus conductor with an artistic bent, recalls his efforts to direct a troupe of amateur actors, associated with and sponsored by the neighborhood Catholic parish and motivated by a combination of ego, fantasy, and attraction to great drama. (“We had a wonderful time pretending we weren’t awful,” Alfie recalls.) His choice of Wilde’s Salome for an upcoming production clearly sets in motion the comical tragedy of a troupe of devout Catholics trying to present a play based on a Bible story but molded by Wilde into a decadent, violent thriller and statement of the deadly power of art.
B. J. Cleveland, longtime pillar of the Dallas-Fort Worth regional live theater scene, portrays Alfie with breathtaking sympathy and flexibility, entirely equal to and sometimes surpassing Finney’s creation of the role in the film version; Jennifer Kuenzer presents a subtle reading of Alfie’s sister Lily, with her calm self-martyrdom on the altar of Alfie’s non-existent heterosexuality. Stan Graner gives a believably complex rendition of Lily’s suitor, Carney the butcher (pun definitely intended), who with self-righteous well-meaning sets in motion Alfie’s ruin; Graner doubles, as the script demands, as the ghost of Wilde, playing up the benevolent, wise side of the notoriously cynical literary genius. Michael McCray handsomely maneuvers through the role of Robbie, Alfie’s secret working-class crush, who has his own tragic love, and Shannon Conboy defines the shy Adele, an unpretentious young woman on whom Alfie projects Wilde’s lust-ridden princess Salome.
In the end, no one gets what he or she thinks he or she wants, but all arrive at something even more valuable than a Hollywood-style happy ending: transformation, insight, and self-realization. Alfie’s pre-gay-lib predicament as a latent and closeted homosexual may seem distant in urban society in 2017; that it is well within living memory and was a real experience for many of us, and that it is a predicament that continues to exist for many, even in urban America, quietly reminds that none of us, gay or straight, can or should take our liberties for granted, especially in the current tumultuous political climate.
The principals are joined by a remarkably flexible, always well-placed supporting cast under the direction of Lon Barrera. A small orchestra of strings and accordion, led with impressive sensitivity from the keyboard by music director Rebecca Lowrey and visibly integrated into Kevin Brown’s simple, effective sets, creates a perfect chamber musical effect and a wonderfully intimate theatrical experience. Lovers of literature, lovers of insight, fans of Wilde, and lovers of fine theater would do well to head out to Plano to take in this gem of a production of a not-particularly-well-known masterpiece of American musical theater.