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Man of No Importance honors thespians at heart

Thanks to the boffo box office of The Producers, movie adaptations have become a major force in stage musicals. But while the name recognition of a film like Hairspray makes it a natural, A Man of No Importance proves a less obvious choice. The overlooked 1994 film starring Albert Finney has a respectable reputation, but little importance.

The story reveals the painful soul-searching of an Irish bus conductor who attempts to stage an amateur production of Oscar Wilde's play Salome. The creative team of Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who made a superb musical out of Ragtime, recognized how Importance touches on themes near and dear to the hearts of stage artists. In adapting the film to stage, the creative team gets to interpret the legacy of Wilde, pen a love letter to humble theater people and explore a unique, uncliched tale of life in the closet.

With material like that, who needs marquee value? Theatre Gael stages A Man of No Importance with similar spirit, and under the direction of Freddie Ashley, the scrappy production seldom stumbles.

Lawrence Salberg plays Alfie Byrne, a longtime bachelor and the kind of blarney-spouting eccentric you'd hope to find in Dublin. He reads poetry to the bus riders on his route every morning, and the day that comely, unwed Adelle (Jennifer Duran) steps aboard, Alfie resolves to revive his amateur theatrical group, the St. Imelda's Players. In Adelle, he thinks he's found his Salome, famed for her salacious dance of the seven veils in Wilde's play.

Though set in the early 1960s, Importance pays a good-natured comic tribute to the would-be thespians, bit players and backstage laborers of any era. The hilariously grandiose Carney (Winslow Thomas), a butcher who thinks he's a master tragedian, exults his love of the theater in the tune "Going Up." The song "Art" gently tweaks playhouse egos and creativity as Alfie deflects horrendous suggestions like turning the dance of the seven veils into a tap number. The refrain, "In a week-and-a-half, it will be art," embodies both misplaced confidence and the-show-must-go-on enthusiasm.

The 14th Street Playhouse's compact third stage perfectly suits the subject matter: Alfie would appreciate the choreography challenges when the full cast can barely fit on the stage at once. Only the number "Books" plays too broadly for the space.

The playhouse sequences contain an exuberance that the main plot doesn't touch. Alfie's fascination with Wilde extends deeper than plays and poetry. When he addresses the young bus driver Robbie (Justin Tanner) as "Bosie," the name of Wilde's paramour, Alfie hints at feelings that he's reluctant to confront.

Salberg's expressive face and powerful voice lead the audience directly inside Alfie's heart. His identity crisis comes to a head in the song "The Man in the Mirror" and concludes with bitter disappointment in "Welcome to the World." Despite the intensity of Alfie's emotions, there's a childlike quality in Salberg's performance, from Alfie's naive passion for art early in the play to his wounded shock near the end.

Importance's musical team specializes in ringing melodies like Tanner's expansive "The Streets of Dublin." But overall, there's more drama in the songs than the story itself. Given the premise, the period and the pessimistic foreshadowing of the prologue, Importance's action seems all but preordained.

Importance rarely builds to true surprises, but Alfie's story, played by Salberg, unquestionably moves us. Given the generosity of the play's final moments, the audience will go easy on the lack of polish among some of Theatre Gael's supporting players. Some may even be moved to seek out the feature film, but it's no substitute for the live musical. As Alfie prophetically quips to the neighborhood priest, "Blessed are the poor of imagination, for they shall inherit the movies."

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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