For the beginning of their 10th Anniversary season, Bad Habit Productions (“BHP”) opened with a lovely and charming chamber musical, A Man of No Importance. Walking through a side corridor in the Wimberley Theater, and onto the stage, I felt as if I was wandering into somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. The stage and audience were arranged on the mainstage itself, with the curtain drawn, blocking out the normal house seats. This setting, coupled with set designer/director Daniel Morris’ simple, rustic set, was intimate and made one feel as if she was in the "rec room" of a church in dreary Dublin.
We first meet Alfie Byrne, the titular “Man of No Importance,” as he is reminiscing with props. Nick Magierowski-Howe’s portrayal of Alfie is poignant and nuanced from the beginning, showing a delicacy for the storytelling, and inviting the audience into his sorrow and joy just from how he interacts with the physical space. One by one, the other characters begin to appear, and they decide to perform a story about Alfie’s life and how he got to where he now is. The conceit of the play within a play is a little heavy-handed, though that is hardly unpredictable given that the book is written by Terrence McNally.
Alfie, a simple bus conductor in 1964 Dublin, has a secret he cannot share with anyone: “the love that dare not speak its name.” This phrase is most associated with Oscar Wilde, the great Irish wit and playwright, and meant that someone was gay. Following an abysmal production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Alfie decides to direct another one of Wilde’s plays, Salome, also scheduled to be rehearsed and performed in his church’s basement. His troop of actors – The St. Imelda’s Players – is ecstatic to be a part of a new show, though it is very unlike any of Wilde’s other works. Through the rehearsal process of this play, many things come to light that upset the gentle balance of this small community: Alfie’s sister, Lily, is dating the curmudgeonly butcher, Mr. Carney; new-to-town Adele is not as innocent as she seems; the happy-go-lucky and church enthused Mrs. Patrick is having an affair; and Alfie is in love with his friend and coworker, Robbie.
The dialogue and songs deftly move between witticisms that are reminiscent of Wilde, heartbreaking earnestness, with raucous humor, but what really stands out the most in this production is the commendable acting and simple storytelling. When working on the piece that has a troupe of misfit townspeople-cum-actors and the ghost of Oscar Wilde as a character, there could be the tendency towards camp. Morris’ direction and Meghan MacFadden’s musical direction, however, strike the perfect balance of the absurd and the sublime, the comic and the earnest. A highlight of this is Ernie, expertly played in dopey huggability by Nick Osborne (who looks like a poor-man’s Aaron Tveit), who comes out onstage with the most laughably atrocious decapitated head of John the Baptist for their rehearsal of Salome.
Also, Magierowski-Howe’s performance is spectacular – he is able to portray a naïveté along with a weariness for the world, making him incredibly compelling to watch. His tears are real, and he is the embodiment of someone who is out of place and time with the world in which he lives. Dan Prior is a balance of charming and awkward in his embodiment of Robbie, handsome and flirtatious, without being the least bit smarmy. The chemistry between them is palpable, even though it is obvious that one feels romantic love, while the other merely platonic. The two actors play off of one another with an ease one could only hope for in a friendship. Not to mention, they are both excellent singers.
The ensemble is solid, with some moments, and performances, that feel unpolished, but that just adds to the overall feeling of oddball, everyday people coming together to make art. Mary O’Donnell, who plays Alfie’s sister Lily, is a stand-out with impeccable comic timing. Both of her big songs, “The Burden of Life” and “Books” play with audience expectations, as well as her own misunderstandings about her brother, and are non-stop hilarious powerhouses.
I didn’t know what to expect going into this play. My love for Oscar Wilde knows no bounds, which made me nervous, and my penchant towards detesting (most) movies-into-musicals made me doubly nervous. However, aside from a few small items (there is no need for microphones, and the feedback from them, in a space that small), it was a most enjoyable and heartfelt piece of theater. At the end of the day, all you can do is hold your friends and family close, love them for who they are, and “love who you love who you love” in all its forms.