"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing," wrote Oscar Wilde in 1891's "The Critic as Artist," "and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal." As someone known, after a few swigs of O'Doul's Amber, to swear things like "Puppies are really neat" and "How come countries can't settle their differences with sack races?" I can't wholeheartedly side with Wilde's quip. The sentiment does apply quite nicely, however, to Theatre Latté Da's Midwestern premiere of Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty, and Lynn Ahrens's A Man of No Importance, a show so ploddingly earnest that it nearly dies of good intentions.
Set in Dublin in 1964, this musical centers on lonely Alfie Byrne (Tod Petersen), a closeted, middle-aged bus conductor who heads an amateur theatrical group specializing in bad productions of Oscar Wilde plays. Having previously focused on Wilde's comedies, Alfie decides to put on Salomé, which he daffily hopes to produce in a Catholic church. Book-smart but street-dumb, Alfie is the sort of chap who orders a Virgin Mary in a working-class pub and is absolutely perplexed to learn that his show's sweet young star (Zoe Pappas) is pregnant out of wedlock. Given Alfie's over-the-top innocence and his habit of reciting poetry to his bus passengers, one imagines the character as being a bit kookier than the likable cipher portrayed by Tod Peterson.
The show's gaggle of subplots (spinster sisters! unrequited bus love!) are uniformly uninteresting, but there's a certain atavistic charm to Alfie's coming-out story. The ballad "Love Who You Love," for instance, is a winningly old-fashioned gay anthem, something like a muted version of "I Am What I Am." But despite its good heart and a few tepidly amusing jokes, McNally's book doesn't have the wit or wisdom to elevate its predictable plot. And the Irish-tinged score by composer Flaherty and lyricist Ahrens (the pair behind Ragtime) is an undistinguished collection of well-crafted treacle and humorless corn. Somewhere from beyond, Wilde is tossing his head in a petulant manner.
Caryl Churchill's 2000 play Far and Away, which is making its area debut at Pillsbury House Theatre under the expert direction of Noël Raymond, is a brilliant, eerie script, and its chill is maximized by this sonorous but matter-of-fact rendering. In the opening scene, Joan (Sage Coy), a preteen girl who's spending a week in the country with her aunt and uncle, awakens to the sound of strange noises. She crawls out the window to investigate, then returns to ask her aunt about what she has seen. Why, for instance, is her uncle bloodying men and children in the shed out back?
Aunt Harper (Laura Esping, who's wonderfully maternal in her first scene and convincingly paranoid in her last) responds with a series of fibs that Joan is too smart for. Finally, she explains that the victims were probably "traitors," and that little Joan can now feel "part of a big movement...to make things better." Whew, that's a relief! The frighteningly mysterious conversation begins an hour-long meditation on the pathology of war and the normalization of evil. By the final scene, the play's surreal battle has escalated, and it's unclear who the enemies are, though children under age five, crocodiles, and the French remain atop the shit list.
Joan grows up to be a milliner, now played by Sandra Struthers, who smartly relieves the character of all her youthful inquisitiveness. This older Joan falls in love with her co-worker Todd (Matt Guidry). They make ridiculously gaudy hats to be worn by manacled prisoners in what appears to be a state-sponsored parade of the day's firing-squad victims. Todd is something of a labor activist, a big-talking justice seeker. But as this dark and powerful production unravels, we begin to realize that both he and Joan are untroubled by their complicity in genocide. They find comfort in their creations, which are used once and then destroyed.
"You make beauty," says Towdd, romantically, "and it disappears." On the subject of creations that turn out to be ephemeral, might the hatter's wistfulness apply to the 200 dead in Madrid and the 8,500 to 10,300 Iraqi civilian deaths in Iraq?