There is nothing modest about Wild With Happy, Colman Domingo’s big-hearted semi-autobiographical dramedy playing at the Public Theater through Nov. 11. Granted, the extravagantly talented Domingo is one of only four cast members in the show — but many of these adopt multiple roles to great effect.
Wild With Happy is a kind of sitcom version of a memory play, following an aspiring actor named Gil who bears a more than passing resemblance to Domingo (and not just because he’s played by Domingo, who earned kudos and a Tony nomination for the short-lived 2010 Broadway production of The Scottsboro Boys). He’s African American, gay, living in New York, and scrupulously trying to avoid the mortality of his beloved mother, Adelaide (Sharon Washington, fine but arguably too young for the role) — but when lupus claims her life, Gil must return to his hometown to settle her affairs, joined by his outrageous pal Mo (a fittingly over-the-top Maurice McRae).
Once at home, he encounters his mother’s sister, Glo (Washington again), a brash-talking traditionalist who balks at Gil’s plans to avoid a church service and to cremate Adelaide (”black people don’t do that unless they’re burned or mutilated or too fat to fit in a coffin”). He also meets a surprisingly flirty funeral director (Korey Jackson), who teams up with Glo when Gil and Mo hit the road to escape the crush of familial grief.
It’s a familiar story boosted by some sharp writing, brisk direction by Robert O’Hara (which helps gloss over some of the script’s infelicities), and Clint Ramos’ clever production design (in which coffins convert into park benches and automobiles). By the end, Gil and his improbable entourage craft a kind of fairty-tale ending for themselves as Gil comes to accept his mother’s passing on his own terms. The audience is treated to a similar epiphany about Domingo’s messy but winsome little comedy. B+
(Tickets: PublicTheater.org or 212-967-7555)