Gil (Colman Domingo) and Adelaide (Sharon Washington) in Wild With Happy (credit: Joan Marcus)

Colman Domingo’s Wild With Happy is a comedy about serious topics: Death, grief, healing and coming to terms with who you are.  While it’s true that these topics have been covered many times before what helps this play soar is Domingo’s take on them, which is alternately humorous, acerbic, and poignant.  More to the point, it’s grounded in a worldview that’s completely his.
Colman Domingo may be a familiar name to those of you who saw his Obie-winning performance in Passing Strange, or saw him in The Scottsboro Boys, for which he got a Tony nod.  So, it’s clear that he’s got acting chops, right?  But the surprise—and pleasure—was the discovery that he’s a strong writer, too.

Wild With Happy “explores the bizarre comedy that lies between death and healing.”  Domingo also stars as Gil, a man struggling to create the life he’s always dreamed of—that of a successful New York City actor.  The various parts of his life—family, friends, romantic relationships—all collide when his mother dies and he decides to have her cremated.  The more pressing question: Where can he scatter the ashes? What he ultimately decides is the story of the play’s second half.

Playwriting is very much like music.  That is, the rhythm of words can mesmerize you much in the same way that the phrasing of a musical melody can.  The dialogue, delivered by Domingo and his equally talented cast, is in many places a sharp staccato, one that volleys back and forth between characters with the focus and force of a Williams’ Sisters tennis match.

The dialogue also reveals the distance Gil is trying to put between his roots and where he’d like to be in life: “I went to Yale. “My urban is a little worn off.”

Sharon Washington’s portrayal of both Gil’s mother, Adelaide (seen through flashbacks) and his Aunt Glo deserves special note.  As the former, she was the doting mother who’s son seemed to be her best friend.  As Aunt Glo, she drew on many stereotypes of the nosy, loud and seemingly pragmatic black aunt that many in the audience would recognize from their own families.  However, she never descended into stereotype with this portrayal, nor she ever give the impression that she didn’t respect this character’s dignity.

The set design stands out, as well.  Since it’s a play about death and grieving, much of the set is composed of coffins.  However, as conceived by scenic designer Clint Ramos, the coffins are used for several inventive purposes: In addition to being the display in the funeral home, they later  flip up to become armoires; pull out to become a divan couch; open to become seats in cars, as in the photo below. Bravo.

Terry (Korey Jackson), Aunt Glo (Sharon Washington), Gil (Domingo) and Mo (Maurice McRae). credit: Joan Marcus

What’s also impressive is the way that Domingo handles the fact that Gil is gay.  I was struck by the fact that his being gay is just a fact of the story.  Yes, he and the male undertaker (Terry, played by Korey Jackson) have a fling in the funeral home.  And, yes, his good friend (Maurice McRae as Mo) is flaming.  But these are treated as facts that are details of his reality and nothing more.  Wild With Happy isn’t a play about being gay.  It’s achievement is that it’s a play in which a gay man works through his grief on the way to healing, all with a good sense of humor in tow.

UPDATE: Wild With Happy was supposed to close on Sunday, November 11, but has been extended to Sunday, November 18 due to the performance interruption caused by Hurricane Sandy.  All remaining tickets are $25!  Use code STORM when you click here, call 212-967-7555 or visit the Public Theater boxoffice.

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Rob Fields is the founder and publisher of Bold As Love Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @robfields.

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