For the final offering in a season that dealt with plays about the theater, the conceit of a group of 15 amateur actors putting on a play about a similar troupe putting on a play must have been difficult for director Kate Swan and the 4th Wall Theatre Company to resist. The result, A Man of No Importance is a delightful, poignant and intimate musical about the efforts of lonely trolley conductor Alfie Byrne to bring Art (with a capital A) to his conservative community in the form of the controversial Salomé by Oscar Wilde (for which they have been thrown out of St. Imelda’s Parish Hall by the church Sodality) while struggling with his own sexuality.
Based on a 1995 film, the play's book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, dramatizes the story of this "man of no importance," his journey of self-discovery and the admission of his own true nature. Too, the overwhelming loyalty of the Irish people to country, family, and religion is a way of life. This loyalty—unflinching even in the face of hardship—is seen throughout A Man of No Importance.
As the tale’s center, Jan Topoleski's winning smile, earnest enthusiasm and beautiful baritone bring Alfie to life, whether he's entertaining the daily commuters with a verse by his hero Oscar Wilde in exchange for a ticket or repeating the mantra, “It’s Art,” to convince his actors that Salomé is not a “dirty play.” Topoleski's fervent wish to "Love Who You Love" is heartbreaking, especially when we recall that the play is set in 1964 Dublin, a time and a place where that would be possible. His stellar performance is matched by Ian Michael Stuart as Robbie, the trolley driver, whom Alfie is trying to snag for the role of John the Baptist and whom the older man secretly loves. In his paean to “The Streets of Dublin,” the passion is palpable, and his magnificent voice rattles the wooden vaults of the Westminster Art Center. It's easy to see why Alfie likes him so much.
Christine Orzepowski's convincing and sympathetic portrayal of Alfie’s sister Lily is nothing short of magical: loving sister, frustrated spinster, expectant bride. Will Lampe provides the right touch of menacing comedy as Carney, the butcher who wants the biggest role in Alfie’s play but is not above ratting him out to the Sodality censors. Their fear and put-down of Alfie's love of "Books" is droll and scary! And Maggie Joy Anderson exhibits just the right amount of tentativeness and shame as the new commuter Adele whom Alfie has chosen to play the princess Salomé yet who hides a secret of her own.
Maria Brodeur (Mrs. Patrick), Mark Dacey (Ernie Lally), Howard Fisher (Father Kenny), Jodi Freeman-Maloy (Mrs. Grace), Brian James Grace (Rasher Flynn), Jen Hanselman (Mrs. Curtin), Kimberly (Mesiti (Miss Crowe), Charles Riley (Baldy O'Shea), Cindy Summers (Kitty Farrelly), Nelsin Valentin (Sully O'Hara) and John Zisa (Breton Beret) round out the company, all of them at the top of their form. Especially entertaining was the number explaining their staging of the provocative Dance of the Seven Veils, and excitement they express about the new production's "Going Up" is especially charming given the narrow lives most of them lead. Will Lampe does double duty as the ghost of Oscar Wilde, who encourages Alfie to "come out" of the closet, only to be beaten up by thugs who lay in wait for the "poofs."
Artistic Director Swann has directed with a steady hand, coaxing sympathetic and likeable performances out of the large group of actors and moving them smoothly around the small, shallow playing space of the Westminster Arts Center. One of the best aspects of the production is the convincing Irish accents spoken by the entire cast! Whoever coached the actors deserves a special mention.
Jasmine Pai's lovely, functional set takes advantage of every inch of that stage, and Nicholas Marmo's lighting design enhances and highlights the unfolding events and featured performers. The costumes by Dan Schultz suggest the 1960’s Dublin scene and delineate each character very well. Stephen Flaherty's melodies evoke Irish music without slavishly copying it, and the band conducted by Markus Hauck set the mood and accompany the singers without overshadowing them. The use of flute and violin is especially effective.
As a musical, A Man of No Importance is well suited to the Westminster Arts Center. The audience sits so close to the dramatic action that it’s very easy to become really involved with Alfie and his cohorts, to feel the pain of a man afraid to look in the mirror, afraid to acknowledge “the love that dare not speak its name.” Since this controversial subject is handled with taste and subtlety, it’s easy to make the leap to the even larger idea that acceptance of who and what we all are is not only important but essential if we are to experience life to the fullest.
A Man of No Importance will be performed Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 PM and Sunday, June 12, at 2 PM through June 18. The Westminster Arts Center is located on Franklin Street in Bloomfield, just minutes from exit 148 on the Garden State Parkway.
Tickets are $24, with discount tickets available for students and seniors. Tickets may be purchased by calling 973.748.9008 ext. 279. Visa, MasterCard and Discover are accepted. Tickets may also be purchased on-line, and additional information is available at www.4thwalltheatre.org
NOTE: Music writers Ahrens and Flaherty are perhaps best known for Ragtime, Once on this Island and Seussical. Terrence McNally is a multiple Tony and Emmy winner who, in addition to Ragtime, wrote the books for musicals such as Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Full Monty and several plays including Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class.
Photo credit: Tom Schopper