Wilde About You

WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT? Sally Murphy as Adele and Roger Rees as the bus driver, Alfie, in A Man of No Importance.Photo: Paul Klonik

A Man of No Importance is an intimate musical adapted from a small, mediocre movie. Though it makes quite a few changes, Terrence McNally’s book stays staunchly faithful to the mediocrity. This is the story of Alfie Byrne, a Dublin bus conductor obsessed with Oscar Wilde, trying to stage his idol’s Salome in a church hall with a raggle-taggle cast of his daily bus riders, to whom he likes to recite Wilde’s poetry.

It seems that in 1964 Dublin, neither the responsible priest of St. Imelda’s Church nor members of a related sodality’s governing board – and certainly not the cast – had any idea of what Wilde and Salome were all about. Nor does Alfie’s sister, Lily (or anyone else), know what Alfie is repressedly up to, or what fantasies he acts out in his carefully locked room. For Alfie is secretly enamored of his handsome, heterosexual driver, who won’t perform in his productions; whereas poor, misguided Lily is trying to make a match between Alfie and Adele, a pretty young woman who is a newcomer on his route, illegitimately pregnant by an unloving boyfriend, and a rather awkward Salome.

No need to know more of the story, except that it abounds in bittersweet wistfulness while also trying to be a lusty comedy. This rivenness is also evident in the nondescript music of Stephen Flaherty, which tries both to jig toward Ireland and zag toward Broadway, and in Lynn Ahrens’s similarly conflicted lyrics. Under Joe Mantello’s direction, the cast does competently, although the gifted Roger Rees is too elegant and cerebral an actor for Alfie, whom Albert Finney captured with greater blowsy fidelity in the movie. Faith Prince, too, is somewhat miscast as Lily. But in a winning performance in a small part not in Barry Devlin’s film script, Jessica Molaskey proves how overdue a juicy Broadway lead is for her manifest talent.

What is the point of Greek tragedy reduced to early, immature Tennessee Williams? That is what Deborah Warner and her leading lady, Fiona Shaw, have given us in the visiting Abbey Theatre production of Medea. Now, Euripides was an irreverent outsider and the most “modern” of Greek dramatists. Bernard Knox calls him “the poet of the crackup … ejected by the majority, passionately admired by a few, but liked by no one. No society welcomes the prophet of its own disintegration.”

Quite so. But even at its most radical, Greek drama, by its very structure, stylization, and poetry, cries out for a certain gravitas. That is what justifies its seeming remoteness, its formal difference from the idiom of our times. Turn it into Orpheus Descending, bring it purportedly closer to us, and it reeks of gimmickry. So this production is accessible to the point of chattiness in its Kenneth McLeish–Frederic Raphael translation, and made spectacular by showy direction and acting, as well as by its contemporary set and costumes. But spectacle, however dear to hoi polloi, is not the same as poetic drama.

Take the ending of this foreshortened version of the play (now barely 90 minutes): no dragon-drawn chariot for Medea’s triumphant escape – how could you make today’s audiences swallow that? Instead, alone with a cringingly squatting Jason and a dementedly distraught Chorus, a defeated Medea is left standing in the middle of a wading pool and dejectedly listing to her left. Child murder, we are reminded, is not to be countenanced. Or take the Chorus of Corinthian women. They have been transmogrified into five motley, moth-eaten females, their lines divided among them, so as to make each a realistic, ordinary individual with her own scenario. They act just as hysterically as the principals (hence no contrast) and make one wonder who they are and how they got there. They certainly aren’t the flawed but unified voice of a crass community.

Medea is a complex and contradictory character, and Shaw gets this amply and intensely across. But do we need her to act up everything from Saint Vitus’s dance to rigor mortis? From exaggerated mannishness to excruciating kittenishness (it doesn’t help that, even when she needlessly strips to her undies, she has zero sex appeal), Shaw never for a second stops Acting. This is impressive in its way, but also self-serving, exhibitionistic, and ultimately stultifying. Jonathan Cake’s handsome Jason is similarly hyperactive; the young-girlish Nurse, young-boyish Tutor, and youthful Aegeus, a seeming refugee from a college production of Ain’t Misbehavin’, only make matters worse. Like a contemporary Athenian to his dry cleaner, we can say to Warner and Shaw “You rippèd these,” but it’s useless to add “You men(e)d these!” Their unidiomatic Medea is not just modern; it is, with a vengeance, modish.

The latterly much-praised stephen Adly Guirgis, author of Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, returns to his playground, the Labyrinth Theater Company, with Our Lady of 121st Street. An actor himself, he doesn’t write plays so much as actors’ exercises: violently angry confrontations, absurdly bizarre vignettes, and abject deflations good for practicing sotto voce underacting.

The scenes of this disjointed, shapeless enterprise connect only by a desperate stretch of the second-rate imagination and are mostly rabid shouting matches or slow-motion unravelings. Instead of a dramatic arc, we get something resembling a graph of our fluctuating stock market. Instead of being mounted in theaters (I hear that the piece, on the strength of a rave in the Times, is transferring to a commercial theater), Our Lady should be promptly faxed to all needy provincial drama schools.

The with-it-ness of the dialogue, said to be the triumph of an unerring ear, consists of things like a flaming queen inquiring “Do I seem very gay?” only to be told “I wouldn’t say that you seem ‘very’ gay … you seem ‘quite’ gay.” A policeman father says about his baby’s thrashings, “My boy was trying to catch the wind,” which I, seated in the front row, actually did.

In the opening scene, the body of a dead nun has been stolen from its coffin, along with the pants off a sleeping mourner. Half of the nun is later recovered, and all of the pants. If the play could explain, or at least pursue, these interesting disappearances, it might have something, but both prove to be shaggy dogs. The undistinguished cast of Labyrinth Company actors, under the direction of Philip Seymour Hoffman, the co–artistic director, cannot redeem the irredeemable.

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A Man of No Importance
New musical based on the Albert Finney film; book by Terrence McNally, score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty; staged by Joe Mantello, starring Roger Rees.
Staged by Deborah Warner, starring Fiona Shaw, for the BAM Next Wave festival.
Our Lady of 121st Street
New play by Stephen Adly Guirgis, staged by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Wilde About You