Two of my favorite anecdotes come from the film critic and essayist Dwight Macdonald, who seems to have had the gift of getting a pithy remark out of everyone worth knowing in the first half of the 20th century. Having the good fortune to be in Hollywood at the same time as Sergei Eisenstein, he met the great Russian director just after a screening of Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and inevitably asked what he thought of the movie. Eisenstein, according to Macdonald, opined that it would make a good Ph.D. thesis. Not long before that, Macdonald had been in Paris, where, as befitted his luck, he was taken to visit James Joyce. As he tells it, he conversed with the great Irish novelist standing by a window; at one point, Joyce gestured contemptuously at the crowds down below. “People goin’ up and down the street,” he declared, “and they don’t know what they want.”
Macdonald’s two punchlines haunted me while I watched the musical that Ragtime‘s authors have made out of Suri Krishnamma’s 1994 film A Man of No Importance. It is painstakingly crafted; everything about it has been done conscientiously, with careful adherence to style, substance, and sincerity. If I were judging a musical-theater class’s end-of-term projects, it would definitely get an A plus. In other words, it would make a good Ph.D. thesis. But it doesn’t make a good musical because nothing in it tells you why Ahrens, Flaherty, and McNally wanted to do it. When professionals of their stature take on a comparatively arcane piece of material like this, you expect to see something in the result that explains why they were driven to it, a passion for some aspect of the work that gets them excited and transmits their excitement to us. But passion, which rarely features in Ph.D. theses, is no more than a bare whimper here. The show’s hero, a middle-aged Dublin bus conductor in 1964, has a passion for Art—yes, the capital-A kind—especially as embodied in the poetry of Oscar Wilde. People who’ve seen the film (I haven’t) tell me that Albert Finney conveys this obsession with a naive insouciance that must look very appealing on his beefy, weathered face. Roger Rees, with his long, aristocratic mien and solemn resonant voice, gives Alfie Burns’s joy in art the schoolmasterly distinction we associate with celebrities’ introductions to Masterpiece Theatre; you wonder why he’s reading poetry to bus passengers and staging amateur theater in a church instead of auditioning for the Abbey.
But then, the story of A Man of No Importance is full of sidesteps that make you wonder, and I don’t know if they come from the current authors or from Barry Devlin’s screenplay. Surely in 1964, working-class Dubliners were not famous for being unobservant, or for keeping silent about their neighbors’ eccentricities. (Were Dubliners ever famous for that?) And surely in 1964, though the city was then still comparatively small and old-fashioned, Dublin knew all about who Oscar Wilde was and what he had done; added to his being a local hero, there had recently been two noisily received, prestigious British movies about him. Just as surely, they knew all about changes being wrought in the world’s view of homosexuality, with the Wolfenden Report prompting headlines and controversy all over England. And yet, apparently, nobody in this story has ever pointed out that Alfie Burns—an aging bachelor who lives with his sister, cooks better than she does, and calls the handsome young driver of the bus he conducts “Bosie”—is queer. He’s barely able to admit it to himself by the middle of the show; his sister is flabbergasted when it’s publicly revealed at the end. And yet he’s the sort of man who, invited along to a workingmen’s pub, orders a Virgin Mary. Where did he develop such tastes—at Greenwich Village brunches in the 1970s?
More significantly, why does he fail to realize that attempting to produce Wilde’s Salome in a Catholic church—the crux of the story—amounts to a declaration of war? This invention amounts to a real piece of historical amnesia on somebody’s part, since Salome spent a lot of the 20th century getting into censorship trouble. (Even as an opera, sung in German, it was shut down when it premiered at the Met in 1907, and kept out of London till 1910, while as a play it was banned there until 1929. Given the Catholic Church’s opposition, Alfie may be giving the Dublin premiere; we’re talking about a time, remember, when Joyce’s Ulysses was not yet on public sale in Ireland.) Salome has other difficulties, too, including an enormous cast and the grueling, nonstop-flamboyant role of Herod, one of the longest speaking parts in the history of one-act plays. You can gauge the authors’ comparative inattention to their story’s underpinnings by their decision to make Alfie’s antagonist the character who, besides him, has most reason to want Salome to go on: his amateur troupe’s lead actor, Carney, a widowed butcher who dotes on Alfie’s sister, and grumbles about not being given the lead role. Yet he’s playing Herod; count the lines.
If a sense of life ran through the story of Alfie’s simultaneous struggle with his queer identity and the forces conspiring to undo his Art, these holes in its plausibility would seem minor. But except when Steven Pascuale, as the object of Alfie’s adoration, leads him on a rowdy tour of “The Streets of Dublin,” the show barely wakes up. Apart from one pretty ballad, in which Alfie advises his troubled leading lady to “Love Who You Love,” the show is melodically drab, constructed tightly on a musical and lyrical palette of what seem endless shades of gray. There’s a drizzle of subplots and a host of minor characters (finely animated, especially by Ronn Carroll and Patti Perkins), but there’s no flair in the event, and little Irishness. (The bay over which Faith Prince’s belted top notes echo is clearly Sheepshead, not Dublin.) Trying to make its characters real, everyday people, the show seems to signal us constantly not to expect too much from them. They’d have done better to start with the assumption that a city where bus conductors read poetry to the passengers is the most important magical place in the world.
The love hasn’t been left out of Say Goodnight Gracie, Frank Gorshin’s 90-minute impersonation of George Burns; what’s missing is its object. Gracie Allen, noticeably adored by the elderly audience to a degree that justifies all of the frequent encomia that Rupert Holmes’s script has Gorshin lavishing on her, is only glimpsed in some film clips and heard in some sound bites (a few authentic, others mimicked by Didi Conn), but she’s the evening’s overpowering presence—and, inevitably, its aching absence. Without her, the show’s just the not-very-interesting story of a successful straight man; the interest, like the laughs, belonged to the funny woman. George wrote a lot of Gracie’s material, but we hear little about that process. Otherwise, the only arresting passages are his detailed recollection of childhood poverty on the Lower East Side (I was pleased that his better-off neighbors were the Feingolds), and his explanation of how the team’s vaudeville act was structured. The evening’s sole moving moment is Burns’s description of how, before the first show in every theater they played, he went out onstage and lit a cigar: He had to know which way the drafts went, he explains, to know if he should stand on Gracie’s right or her left—if he had blown smoke in her face, the audience would have killed him. The bulk of Say Goodnight Gracie‘s script is piffle, though Gorshin’s rendering of the aged Burns is well done. But in its absolute weight of love (the audience’s, for Gracie), that one moment roughly equals all of Romeo and Juliet.
Even St. John Hankin’s 1906 comedy, The Charity That Began at Home, virtually a theorem about human nature in three QED acts, contains enough passion to make its action go amusingly haywire. Hankin’s tactic is to show us what happens when a good-hearted highborn lady actually has to entertain and even employ the victims of her largesse. The ensuing upheaval, though carefully kept at a teacups-poised level of gentility, suggests Joe Orton with kid gloves on; even the irredeemable get their pretensions to wickedness stripped away. Gus Kaikkonen’s production, a bold, crude woodcut of Hankin’s elegant line drawing, nonetheless builds a sturdy bridge back to the era’s museum-remote behavior. Harmony Schuttler plays her ladyship’s pious daughter, to my relief, as if no one had ever told her that ingenues today are supposed to grate, whine, and generally behave like mall rats. Kristen Griffith and Becky London make some effect as her mother and her aunt, while Alice White supplies a droll cameo as the snootiest governess who ever resented a handout.