Keegan Theatre’s latest offering — “A Man of No Importance” — is the coming out story of a middle-aged gay man set to a melodic score. Under Mark A. Rhea and Christina Coakley’s deft co-direction, what might have been something a little sappy is instead unabashedly sentimental but not treacly.
Alfie Byrne (Buzz Mauro), the musical’s title character, spends his days collecting tickets on a Dublin bus, but his mind is rarely on his work. When not reading aloud to daily commuters from the pages of his literary hero Oscar Wilde, the closeted bus conductor is either thinking about the St. Imelda’s Players, a local amateur theatrical troupe whose productions he directs, or mooning over his co-worker Robbie Fay (John Robert Keena), a cute bus driver about 20 years his junior.
Created by the Broadway trio behind “Ragtime” (composer-lyricist team Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, and gay playwright Terrence McNally), the musical is adapted from the 1994 same-titled Albert Finney film, and for the most part faithfully follows that storyline: It’s working class Ireland circa 1964. Alfie wants to mount a production of Wilde’s “Salome” featuring lovely bus passenger Adele Rice (talented newcomer Madeline Botteri), as the veil-dancing princess opposite young Robbie in the part of John the Baptist. Alfie’s plans go awry when the parish board deems “Salome” “a dirty play” and shuts down the show.
On top of his very public struggle with the church, Alfie is also grappling privately with his sexuality. Unable to discuss “the love that dare not speak its name” with anyone, including his domineering but goodhearted sister Lily (Kristen Jepperson), Alfie turns to an imaginary confidante, Wilde (Harv Lester). Like a scepter turned out in full Edwardian regalia, the legendary gay wit comes to Alfie offering support and inspiration in two somewhat disconcerting scenes.
Smartly, Mauro underplays Alfie. With all the recitation of Wilde’s prose and theatricality involved in the role, a lesser actor might have gone over the top. Instead, Mauro gives a powerfully quiet performance; he convincingly portrays a thoughtful but repressed man, well-practiced at deflecting inquiries about girlfriends and resigned to a life without love. Over the course of the longish but quick-paced musical, Mauro subtly conveys the changes that accompany Alfie’s growing self acceptance.
Flaherty and Ahren’s pretty score mixes Irish folk with pop and Broadway sounds. Particular highlights from this production include Alfie’s oft-reprised waltz “Love Who You Love,” and Baldy O’Shea’s (Tim Lynch) sweet paean to his late wife, “The Cuddles Mary Grave.” Bigger fun numbers like “Going Up” and “Art” show off some of the excellent 17-person cast as they delightfully assay the quirky and dubiously talented members of the St. Imelda’s Players.
Church Street Theater (Keegan’s permanent home) is both intimate and versatile — not long ago the small space transformed handily into a derelict East Village loft for the company’s Helen Hayes Award winning production of “Rent,” and now it’s magically morphed into set designer George Lucas’ take on a no-frills Irish church hall. Michael Innocenti’s moody lighting and Kelly Peacock’s spot on costumes successfully add to the illusion.
“A Man of No Importance” ends sweetly and perhaps too neatly. But in Keegan Theatre’s skillful hands, Alfie’s story ends just right.
‘A Man of No Importance’
Through July 11
Keegan Theatre at
The Church Street Theatre
1742 Church Street, N.W.