Wild With Happy is a seriously funny play. I mean that quite literally: what else could it be, given that it’s a comedy about a man grieving the death of his mother?
For the most part, that counterintuitive combination of the serious and the funny works quite well, thanks mainly to the work’s playful structure and its ostentatious and outrageous characters. The play opens with a rather sober Gil (Corey Jones), explaining his aversion to religious ceremonies and churches, in a monologue that is suddenly interrupted by a flashback in which he relives the time his mother Adelaide (C. Kelly Wright) brought him back to Sunday services to “get themselves some Jesus” and were greeted (in his memory, at least) by a charismatic, disco-dancing Church Elder (Monteze Freeland) who traumatizes the young “limp-wristed” Gil by knocking Adelaide flat on the floor with the Holy Spirit. The moment, handled with flair by director Reginald Douglas, is technicolor and outsized, and sets the tone for a production that likewise shifts zanily in structure and mood from the earnest to the ridiculous at the drop of a hat.
Or perhaps I should say at the drop of a shoe, for Gil’s mother was a big believer in magic, fairytales, and the Cinderella promise that if you have faith in your dreams, they really will one day come true, and the play’s main trajectory traces Gil’s journey from cynical, eye-rolling rejection of his mother’s romantic fantasizing to a sweet moment of sentiment straight out of her favorite fairy tale. Along the way, Gil needs to deal with his guilt over not having spent enough time with his “onliest” mother during her final illness, as well as with his despair over the shambles into which both his professional life and his love life have fallen.
Accompanying Gil on that journey are his best friend, the gender-ambiguous makeup artist Mo, and his domineering, tackily-dressed and -bewigged Aunt Glo (played by Freeland and Wright), along with Terry (Jason Shavers), the funeral director Gil manages to seduce while deciding what to do with his mother’s remains. Mo and Glo are the two characters playwright Colman Domingo clearly had the most fun writing, and Freeland and Wright make those characters effervesce. Freeland is wondrously inventive as the sashaying, attitude-ful Mo, a character who appears to be all exuberant surface and no depth – until the poignant, fleeting moment when Freeland lets us see the core of hurt and regret Mo uses all that attitude to cover up. Wright brings Energizer Bunny-like momentum to her personification of Glo, who seems to barely stop talking to take a breath and who gets some of the best gags in the play, including a recurrent water-drinking lazzi that is one of the more impressive bits of physical comedy I’ve seen in some time.
The laughter these two characters provoke helps compensate for the play’s rather spongy plot: at an hour and forty-five minutes, the intermissionless play starts to feel draggy about two-thirds of the way through, and the play’s ending, while utterly irresistible, isn’t fully earned. Moreover, strong as Domingo is in fleshing out his comic characters, Gil and Terry, his two “straight” men, often feel described rather than embodied. For example, at one point Terry tells Gil that he finds him “strange but beautiful”; Jones’s beauty is self-evident, but there’s not much that’s strange about his behavior, especially in comparison to the idiosyncratic Mo. Although I found Jones both believable and compelling in the role of Gil, I wonder if the script might have been better served by an interpretation that leaned in more heavily to the stereotype of the flamboyant gay peacock. That is: Jones’ and Shaver’s “straight men” are perhaps a tad too straight for the world of the play.
The costuming, by Karen Perry, adds its own sly humor to the play’s mix of serious comedy: in particular, Aunt Glo’s repertoire of velour-plus-gold-sneaker combos, her assortment of wigs, and her seemingly bottomless purses and fanny packs become running jokes throughout the play. Tony Ferrieri’s set establishes a fitting cartoonish outlandishness, with a faux marble platform and huge red curtain that glow under black lites; the curtains pull back to reveal a shallow playing space that transforms into the funeral home, Adelaide’s apartment, and a hotel room, while the set also cleverly pops out elements that serve as a park bench or automobiles. Zachary Beattie-Brown’s sound design draws on Motown/disco hits like “Best of My Love” to create an upbeat, toe-tapping soundscape whose tone and lyrics both fit the theme of the play, and Andrew David Ostrowski’s lights masterfully shift the mood and atmosphere from realism to fantasy and back again.