“Keep me off the stage too long and I start to shrivel up; my soul needs the exercise,” says Carney, a butcher and amateur actor, in “A Man of No Importance,” a musical that Trilogy Repertory is currently presenting at the Sieminski Theater in Basking Ridge, with direction by Angela Masi.
The play’s main character, Alfie, a bus driver and amateur theater director, lives by that credo, too. It’s the 1960s, in Dublin, and Alfie is a closeted homosexual — he dares not tell others, and seems to barely be able to admit it to himself — and the world of theater gives him a way to sublimate his sexual frustration. It’s virtually all he seems to think about.
He is conservative and not even remotely a troublemaker by nature, but makes a surprisingly daring choice to direct Oscar Wilde’s controversial “Salome” at the church that lets him use its space for his plays. He also adopts the very questionable strategy of trying to deceive the church’s pastor about the nature of the play. (Alfie is a Wilde devotee, and the “A Man of No Importance” title is a play on the title of Wilde’s play, “A Woman of No Importance”).
There is a lot going on in this 2002 musical (book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens), which is based on the 1994 film that starred Albert Finney. The big question, of course, is if “Salome” will have to close before it even opens. But there is much more than that.
Will Alfie (played by Mike Rush) find the courage to confess his love for his bus-driving colleague and self-described “ordinary bloke” Robbie (Sean Coyle), or at least interest him in the theater? (“I don’t want to stand on the stage with a sword/I went to a pantomime once, I was bored,” Robbie sings.)
Will Alfie’s sister Lily (Eileen McShane), who is being courted by Carney (Bob Scarpone), reconsider her decision not to marry anyone until her brother finds a wife?
And then there is Adele (Jennifer Gallagher). She is new in town, and not an actress. But once she steps on Alfie’s bus, he is convinced that she would be perfect to play the title character of “Salome.” She is not sure she wants to do that, though, and has, let’s just say, some secrets of her own that may get in the way.
The musical has a large cast; many of its actors play the eccentric members of Alfie’s troupe, who represent a substitute family for him. Rush and the production’s other principle actors are fine, but the production’s MVP is Scarpone, who projects boisterous energy on the big first-act let’s-put-on-a-play number “Going Up”; doubles as Oscar Wilde himself, whom Alfie has imaginary conversations with; AND is the musical’s primary villain, when Carney’s moral outrage at the content of “Salome,” combined with his disappointment at not landing a bigger part, inspire him to lead the crusade against it.
There is little in the way of a set here, and the sound is uneven (at times, the music being played by five musicians at the back of the stage drowns out the actors). The score is pleasant enough, though it lacks a real knockout punch of a song. But — just as we imagine Alfie’s “Salome” (which we never see) would have — this production projects a lot of spirit.
And perhaps most vitally, the message of tolerance and compassion at the heart of “A Man of No Importance” continues to have quite a bit of importance, 29 years after the film’s release and 21 years after the musical’s debut.
Trilogy Repertory presents “A Man of No Importance” at the Sieminski Theater in Basking Ridge through Oct. 7. Visit trilogyrepertory.com.
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