Gil, Mo, and Gil's mother's ashes take a road trip to Disney World.

Gil (Forrest McClendon), Mo (Chivas Michael), and Gil's mother's ashes take a road trip to Disney World. (Richard Anderson / June 19, 2014)

WILD WITH HAPPY

By Colman Domingo

through June 29 At Center Stage

There's a scene early in Colman Domingo's Wild with Happy at Center Stage where the protagonist, a 40-year-old, underemployed actor named Gil, is pacing around his mother's apartment, trying to absorb the fact that she has just died. Just then his Aunt Glo bursts into the room in a purple velour sweatsuit and starts carrying on about the need to honor the dead in a big church funeral with as many flowers and choir members as they can find.

All the while she's testifying like the African-American preacher we've seen in an earlier scene, she's rifling through her dead sister's closet and grabbing jewelry and dresses for herself. This overly obvious jab at holier-than-thou hypocrisy is the kind of creaky joke that threatens to turn Domingo's script into the cheapest kind of sitcom.

But Stephanie Berry, who plays Glo in a frosted, unbalanced wig, is a hurricane of energy that keeps pushing the joke further and further. By the time she's wearing three hats, four scarves, five blouses, and six skirts as she hollers about giving "the community" a chance to come together and heal, all resistance is futile. You can only give into the shameless hilarity of the moment.

The whole show is like that. Wild with Happy shouldn't work. The script is full of arm-twisting sentimentality, jokes that fall flat, implausible narrative turns, and manipulative plot twists that sacrifice character for punch lines. And yet it does work, because some of the jokes are really funny and by the second act all five of the major characters seem like real people you can care about.

Even Aunt Glo becomes a sympathetic character, not because she ever stops her motormouth raps and self-serving hustle, but because we come to understand that being loud and aggressive is her way of coping with a childhood of poverty and an adulthood of repetitive manual labor. Even the flaming queen Mo (Chivas Michael), who starts out as an even worse caricature than Glo, grows into a multifaceted character capable of sensible advice for Gil.

Gil needs some good advice, because he has reacted to his mother's death (and to a recent breakup with his boyfriend) in the worst possible way: by shutting down emotionally. When he visits the Philadelphia funeral home, he turns down the sales pitch for fancy caskets and flowery wreaths and insists on an immediate cremation. He wants to get back to New York as soon as possible so he can resume his acting career and not have to answer questions about why he didn't visit his mother in her final months.

This is the first production of Wild with Happy that hasn't featured Domingo himself in the role of Gil. Instead he turned the role over to his longtime friend, Forrest McClendon (they were both Tony-nominated in the 2010 Broadway show Scottsboro Boys). Tall, bald, goateed, and trim in a plaid shirt, McClendon can't always resist the temptation to mug for the audience when Glo or Mo are being especially outrageous. But he does skillfully use his body language to suggest the emotions bubbling beneath his screwed-down self-control.

Terry Jackson IV (James Ijames), the young, gay heir to the funeral business, tries to teach Gil the secrets of Hindu breathing by pointing out the chakra points on his body. What begins as a meditation exercise quickly becomes a very funny bit of bawdy slapstick comedy. But even this stereotype of a closeted, nerdy salesman blossoms into something more interesting: a young man with a secret ambition to defy his parents and go into holistic healing, and a not-so-secret crush on Gil.

Berry plays not only Glo but also Gil's mother Adelaide, who is also a gossipy older woman but in a much sweeter way. That sweetness is especially evident when she giddily describes her favorite Disney movies. Mo decides that what Gil needs in order to finally grieve is a trip to Disney World. Thus the second act becomes the stage equivalent of a road movie, with Mo and Gil in a yellow sports car being followed by Glo and Terry in a big, old, red gas-guzzler. The sheer implausibility of the whole thing is justified only by the laughter that results.

There are some nice, understated moments when each of the passenger pairs pulls off into rest areas on I-95 and shares some revealing secrets. These scenes work much better than the big climax, which seems arm-twistingly maudlin. But even that doesn't ruin the show, because director Jeremy B. Cohen has spurred all four members of the cast to throw so much comic energy and personality into the project that we will forgive the play all its flaws. ■