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'A Man of No Importance' review — Jim Parsons leads a simple yet stirring revival

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

With audiences on three sides of a small, knickknack-laden stage, which actors frequently spill off of with instruments in hand, A Man of No Importance at Classic Stage Company perfectly captures the feel of scrappy community theatre in a church basement. That's a high compliment, to clarify. In fact, it's the entire point of the show, a stirring and gorgeous one in its simplicity.

The musical is set up as a play-within-a-play, with bus passengers in Dublin introducing the story of their conductor, Alfie Byrne (Jim Parsons). They're all members of his amateur theatre troupe, save for the bus driver, Robbie (A. J. Shively), though Alfie hopes he'll join for more reasons than one. Alfie is gay; Robbie is not, but the next best thing to being with him, then, is convincing him to lead an Oscar Wilde play.

Wilde is, of course, a deliberate choice for the playwright that consumes Alfie's every waking moment. "Wilde had no life aside from art. Remember that. He lived in the realm of the aesthetic. He never descended into the sewer," Alfie says of his idol. He does the same thing, throwing himself into the theatre troupe to escape his desires, while secretly wishing the theatre will be his ticket to living his truth. (Alfie is urged on at points by Wilde's ghost, played by Thom Sesma, thoroughly enjoying himself.) It's a clever conceit, as A Man of No Importance is very aware of its own theatricality, and how performing Alfie's story shows acceptance in itself.

Parsons convincingly inhabits Alfie's earnestness and diffidence, if not his Irish accent. Alfie's intimate little story of self-discovery isn't quite big enough for all its characters, but each member of the ensemble shines in even the most underwritten parts. Shereen Ahmed is marvelous as the reticent leading lady Adele, and Mary Beth Peil's few lines as Mrs. Grace are some of the show's funniest. ("She's a little old [to play] me daughter, Mr. Byrne. Can she be me sister?" she asks of the decades-younger Adele.)

In stage time, Alfie is most evenly matched by his sister Lillian (a motherly, wisecracking Mare Winningham) who can't understand why he hasn't settled down. And Shively brings an effortless, mischievous charm to Robbie, lighting up the stage with "The Streets of Dublin," his energetic solo and the show's best number among a strong array of Irish folk tunes by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.

A Man of No Importance ultimately rushes to its end, but this being a 20-year-old musical whose writer (the late, great Terrence McNally) has passed, dwelling on that is fruitless. This revival — the first since its New York premiere in 2002 — has songs and performances that will rouse the soul, and that's of the utmost importance.

A Man of No Importance is at Classic Stage Company through December 18. Learn more about A Man of No Importance tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Jim Parsons and the company of A Man of No Importance. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

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