A wildly Happy homecoming at TheatreWorks

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Terry (Richard Prioleau, left)), Gil (Colman Domingo, center), and Mo (Duane Boutté) have a conversation at the funeral home in the West Coast premiere of Domingo’s Wild With Happy, a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Mark Kitaoka. Below: Sharon Washington as Aunt Glo complicates the life of Domingo’s Gil. Photo by Tracy Martin

In his wildly cynical, angry, sad and, ultimately, happy new play Wild With Happy, playwright/actor (and former San Franciscan) Colman Domingo is doing several admirable things. In telling the story of a 40-year-old man who has just lost his mother, he is telling a modern fairy tale in which the mother – so often long dead and gone in such tales – is the driving force. And he’s pushing hard against the enormous cultural boulder that goes by various names – cynicism, snark, realism – but is really just the absence of hope.

In its West Coast premiere from TheatreWorks, Wild With Happy is a light farce until it isn’t. Mixed in with the broad comedy and zany road trip, there’s some heavy baggage involving the mother-son bond and the very real uses of enchantment, tradition and ceremony. It doesn’t all work in director Danny Scheie’s brisk, 95-minute production, but there’s an abundance of humor and heart.

Domingo is as charismatic as ever in the role of Gil, a frustrated 40-year-old actor who fled his native Philadelphia for the promise of stardom in New York. Things haven’t worked out all that well for Gil, and he’s further embittered by a bad breakup with a boyfriend. His eccentric family back in Philly – a Cinderella-loving mom, a wacky aunt – weigh heavily on him, and that’s part of the reason he’s feeling such guilt after his mother’s sudden passing. It’s a challenging role that Domingo has created for himself because Gil isn’t inherently likeable. As a person, he’s tightly wound, cranky and ever the victim of the world and its inhabitants not meeting with his approval or matching his high standards. But Domingo works had, both as playwright and actor, to keep pummeling Gil until he has no choice but to break down (through?) his defensive walls and let the emotion out and the people in.

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Reprising the role she created last fall at the Public Theater in New York, Sharon Washington is a force of nature as Aunt Glo, sister to Gil’s deceased mother (whom Washington also plays in flashbacks). Outfitted in velour track suits and full of strong opinions, Aunt Glo is all riled up. She doesn’t agree with Gil’s decision to have his mother cremated because it goes against everything she (and, by association, her community) believes in when it comes to honoring the dead. She wants an expensive casket, a proper visitation and a blow-out funeral and wake. She feels cheated of a death ritual that means something to her, and she’s convinced Gil, who has issues dealing with his grief, needs it more than anyone. Washington is a firecracker, exploding with each speech, arms splayed and voice pitched at peak volume. She’s hilarious but not a cartoon. Her issues with Gil are real and understandable, and you never forget that she’s grieving, too.

Of course there’s nowhere to head from here but a road trip to Disney World, with Aunt Glo and Terry the sweet man from the Philly funeral home (Richard Prioleau, a great choice for a Prince Charming type) chasing Gil and his sassy friend Mo (Duane Boutté in an underwritten role). It seems Aunt Glo placed a tracking device in her late sister’s Cinderella doll (say what now?). Set designer Erik Flatmo does what he can to make the road trip interesting and funny (we see both cars on stage and well-placed video cameras allow for close-ups from the front seats), but car chases are really better left to movies. Or real life.

Once in Orlando, the action shifts to the Cinderella suite of a Disney hotel, and Domingo lays on the sentiment pretty thick (lighting and media designer David Lee Cuthbert adds some nice firework-y, fairy tale-y touches). But that’s part of the point, right? To bust up Gil’s cynicism, it takes some pretty heavy machinery, and there’s no heavier sentimental machinery than that devised by Disney for its theme parks.

As entertaining as Wild With Happy is, I must admit that my favorite part of the evening was the extraordinary pre-show playlist playing in the theater as audience members took their seats. It was version after version of “Get Happy” – Rufus Wainwright, Puppini Sisters, Tony Bennett, among many others – ending with the inevitable Barbra Streisand/Judy Garland medley of “Get Happy” and “Happy Days Are Here Again.” That music all by itself made me wild with happy.

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Colman Domingo’s Wild With Happy continues through June 30 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $23-$73.Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

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