Amid the busy fall theater season, Classic Stage Company Off-Broadway’s triumphant revival of the underrated 2002 chamber musical “A Man of No Importance,” starring Jim Parsons and directed by John Doyle, is a most welcome and unexpected surprise. .
Based on a 1994 Albert Finney film of the same name, the musical centers on Alfie Byrne (Parsons), a single, sensitive and soft-spoken bus driver in 1964 Dublin, who leads a sponsored theater group by the church and decides to present Oscar Wilde’s outrageous biblical tragedy “Salome”, setting off a tumultuous chain of events for himself and his community.
Until now, I haven’t been a huge fan of the musical, which has an Irish-flavored score from composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens (the team behind “Once On This Island”, “Ragtime” and “Seussical”) and a book by the late Terrence McNally.
Some of the songs (especially the main character’s, which were written with a non-singing actor in mind) are underwhelming, and the plot can feel dated and sentimental. It does, however, contain a piece of Irish rock that ranks among Ahrens and Flaherty’s greatest hits (“The Streets of Dublin”) and some tender ballads. It also celebrates the ability of non-professionals to enrich their lives and build community through making art.
The current staging marks a swansong and a victory lap for Doyle, who recently stepped down as artistic director of Classic Stage. It makes exceptional use of Doyle’s defining aesthetic (actors playing the role of musicians, self-aware mode of storytelling, seamless flow between song and dialogue, communal environment).
Although Doyle gained notoriety directing well-known Sondheim musicals, his best covers were of less revered musicals made stronger and fresher through his tendency to rethink by cutting back, notably “The Color Purple”, “Allegro” and “Carmen Jones”. Although I unfortunately did not see the original Off-Broadway production of “A Man of No Importance” at Lincoln Center (which featured the late Roger Rees), I had to hard to believe it was better than that.
Parsons, who rose to fame on the TV sitcom ‘The Big Bang Theory’ and has done a fine job on the New York scene over the past decade in plays such as ‘Harvey’ and ‘The Boys in the Band’ , constitutes a genuine and affectionate Alfie. He is joined by an exceptional supporting cast which includes Mare Winningham, AJ Shively, Shereen Ahmed and Mary Beth Peil.
While the non-intermission production is more than worthy of a Broadway transfer, I can’t help but feel that much of its strength comes from its expert use of its intimate space, which has a seating arrangement at three quarters, evokes an Irish pub, and includes actors wandering the aisles. It also packs perhaps the best sound quality and control I’ve ever heard for a live musical in a small theater.
Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St., classicstage.org. Until December 18.