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June 16, 2006

A Wilde time on
the old town

A tale of intolerance and acceptance comes alive onstage

Cleveland--In the pre-Stonewall days, homosexuality was far more repressed than it is now. Despite the best efforts of the religious right, LGBT people enjoy far more freedoms now than in the mid-1960s.

The situation was even harsher in other countries. Prosecutions for homosexual activity were far more common in Britain and Ireland than in the United States.

No matter how repressive a society is, however, homosexuality is always present. No matter how Catholic a country, gay men and lesbians are always there. Lacking the freedom to express themselves, however, can lead people to tragic fates.

Thankfully, A Man of No Importance, playing through June 25 at Lakewood’s Beck Center, does not come to such an untidy end. This is not one of those plays where the homo kills himself at the end of the second act.

Based on the 1994 film starring Albert Finney, Man tells of Alfie Byrne, a bus conductor in Dublin, Ireland in 1963.

(Buses in that part of the world once had both a driver and a conductor. You stepped onto the bus, the conductor sold you a ticket, and then you sat down.)

While a dutiful conductor, Alfie lives a life dedicated to art, most especially the works of Dublin’s native son, Oscar Wilde. He directs Wilde’s plays at his local church, casting the productions mostly with his passengers.

Alfie is also closeted, and is deeply in love with his driver Robbie, a young man of flashing eyes and bulging biceps.

A new passenger on the bus gives Alfie inspiration, and his little troupe’s latest production is born.

Trouble arises when he decides to stage Salomé, the playwright’s saucy tale of the beheading of John the Baptist. When the church hierarchy is apprised of the supposedly salacious nature of the work, Alfie is barred from putting on the show.

He also finally gives in to temptations and accepts an invitation to a tryst, with tragic consequences.

Whether he can salvage his career, his avocation and his relationship with his sister is in doubt, and Alfie may lose everything.

While the 1994 film is good source material, one can really thank gay playwright Terrence McNally for writing the book to a wonderful stage piece, along with Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens for music and lyrics. Between the three of them, they created a warm, funny and engaging musical.

Directed by Beck Center artistic director Scott Spence, surely one of the big guns in Cleveland theater, A Man of No Importance (a twist on Wilde’s title A Woman of No Importance) is filled with solid performances. One of the risks with putting on a production requiring accents is American actors’ lack of an ear for them--performers from “across the pond” can do American accents far more ably than Americans can capture the sound of the British Isles.

However, Spence’s cast speaks in the treacle-laden tones of the Emerald Isle to a man, laying to rest fears that someone would come onstage shifting between Irish and cockney and God only knows what other accents. (Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves springs to mind.)

Matthew Wright as Alfie is almost heartbreaking. That a man so warm and so kind seems to be so unloved should bring an audience to tears, a tribute to Wright’s ability to bring out his character’s depths. And while the main requirement for Robbie should really be that he’s pretty, Rob Mayes is more than that. For someone so young, his acting ability is impressive.

George Roth as Carney is the most religious member of the acting troupe and the boyfriend of Alfie’s sister. He emerges as the villain of the piece, but he is also Alfie’s muse Oscar Wilde, giving the troubled bus conductor advice and encouragement. Roth is the ultimate angel on one shoulder, devil on the other, and he plays both parts to perfection.

While it would be time-consuming and wearying to list each actor and sing their praises--all of which are well-deserved--it is worth noting that Rhonda Rosen in the role of the slightly egocentric Mrs. Grace is as likable in this play as she was the object of audience scorn as the pseudo-villain Mrs. Tilford in The Children’s Hour. Rosen’s looks, persona and ability never cease to remind me of Jean Stapleton, whose work beyond Edith Bunker has earned her a spot as one of the preeminent actresses of her generation.

A Man of No Importance plays on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm through June 25. Tickets are $28, $25 for seniors and $17 for students 22 and under.

The Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, can be reached at 215-5212540 or online at www.beckcenter.org.

 

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