Once upon a time, there was a lovely movie called "A Man of No Importance" that Terrence McNally had never heard of. A 1994 film from a screenplay by Barry Devlin, it starred Albert Finney as Alfie Byrne, a modest, middle-aged Dublin bus conductor who is in love with (1) the theatre, (2) the poetry and plays of Oscar Wilde and (3) his own handsome bus driver, a quite straight young chap named Robbie Fay. Alfie likes to call him Bosie, which was Wilde's endearment for Lord Alfred Douglas, the golden boy who did him in.
Now it so happens that Terrence McNally is himself in love with the theatre, even if he puts it this way: "I love writing and I love rehearsing and I hate everything else about the theatre." In any event, the latest of McNally's many and often stunning contributions to the theatre of our time is the book for the Lincoln Center Theater production of A Man of No Importance at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, a work with music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and direction by Joe Mantello. Roger Rees and Faith Prince are its stars.
McNally had greatly liked working with Flaherty and Ahrens on Ragtime, a show that won Tony Awards for all three of them. "We were looking for something new to do. Then one night I was in the Blockbuster video store at Broadway and 9th Street, near where I live, and I saw Albert Finney on the cover, which was all I needed. I took it home and fell in love with it. I called Lynn and Stephen, and they went to their video stores and got the film, but they were not taken with it until a reappraisal a year later."
What had fetched McNally was that little church-based theatre group — the St. Imelda's Players — recruited by Alfie Byrne from among the passengers on his bus. Last year, under Alfie's direction, they'd done The Importance of Being Earnest. This year Alfie has set his sights on a rather riskier proposition, Wilde's Salome, complete with the Dance of the Seven Veils and John the Baptist's severed head. The ensuing complications when the Catholic Sodality gets huffing and puffing may well be imagined.
"This is not a musical about an amateur theatre company," says McNally. "It's about the theatre as family, theatre as community, supporting one another, the way the theatre community came to the support of Corpus Christi" — McNally's stridently picketed 1997 homosexual projection of the life and death of Jesus. At the end of A Man of No Importance, the St. Imelda's Players hold hands in a circle while Alfie Byrne has Robbie the bus driver read a stanza from Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol. "That's not in the movie; that's Terrence McNally," says the man of the same name.