Any effort that celebrates Oscar Wilde is near and dear to my heart. In fact, Bad Habit Productions has a Wilde history, producing the stunning, award winning GROSS INDECENCY a few seasons back, about the trials which resulted in Wilde’s horrific imprisonment in the Reading Gaol.
Bad Habit kicks off their 10th season with a little gem of a musical called A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE (playing through Aug. 28th) inspired by the 1994 Albert Finney movie of the same name. The Terrence McNally (book)/ Stephen Flaherty (music)/Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) vehicle fits in perfectly with BH’s mission for this season: No Life Aside from Art. The man who thinks he’s not important will be heard and validated in this lovely musical.
Alfie Byrne (a melancholy Nicholas Megierowski-Howe) is a Dublin bus conductor by day and amateur thespian with every breath he takes. He even treats his passengers to theatrical readings as they ride to work. After hours, he runs a community theater in the basement of a nearby catholic church, specializing in plays by Oscar Wilde. This time out, he plans to stage the highly controversial Salomé. You can imagine the trouble he’ll face when church officials get wind of the seven veils, not to mention the severed head.
McNally’s script is extremely funny (for example, when the parish priest inquires about the play and is reassured that it’s a religious piece about John the Baptist). Strangely, the night I attended (and this does happen from time to time) the audience didn’t laugh very much (perhaps because they came in with heat exhaustion from the 90+ degrees outside), despite the wonderfully witty dialogue and delightful songs like Mary O’Donnell and Kevin Fennessy’s naughty “Books” (as the root of all evil!).
O’Donnell lights up the stage as Alfie’s long suffering, snippy sister and Fennessy dominates the boards as the sister’s suitor/ as a less than modest member of Alfie’s acting troupe/ and as the spirit of Oscar Wilde. (His soft shoe is a thing of beauty!) Director Daniel Morris and music director Meghan MacFadden get splendid work, as well, from Dan Prior as the dashing, amiable driver on Alfie’s bus, from Arthur Waldstein as the widower who misses his wife’s “Cuddles,” and from Gillian Mackay-Smith, spot on in two roles, one of them, utterly convincingly male!
The lack of audience engagement may have stemmed, I’m sorry to say, from the staging: The audience is configured on two sides of the playing area, with only one side having a clear view of the action. It was only by chance that I chose a seat on the side where the bus faced us – and there were many scenes on that bus – leaving half the audience looking at actors’ backs or at best, their sides.
Alas, I missed a good deal of Dani Berkowitz’s lines (as the young woman with no dramatic experience recruited by Alfie to play Salomé), although you could hear her when she sang, either because she spoke so softly (believe it or not, everyone has a mic) or because she had her back to us… I guess, in order to face the other half of the audience. Ironically, turning her back to the audience is the hilarious, spurious advice she is given by a jealous Salomé cast member because she was not chosen for the lead.
I don’t mean to convey that A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE (who turns out to be) is not enjoyable. It is. Just be sure you sit on the left side as you enter the space.