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Theatre in Review: Nollywood Dreams (MCC Theater)

Nana Mensah. Photo: Daniel J. Vincent

What does it mean when the funniest part of a stage comedy is a film? Near the end of Nollywood Dreams, a broad farce set in Nigeria's movie industry in the 1990s, a screen drops in and we see the trailer for a romantic potboiler, and it is perfectly awful -- the overwrought acting, the oddball camera angles, and, especially, the unctuous narration. ("But what happens when you are reunited with your one true love, but you have already married someone else?") It's also done with tremendous affection; one suspects that playwright Jocelyn Bioh has seen many such efforts and has enjoyed them all, proof that the best parodies come from writers who secretly love with what they're spoofing. (Alex Basco Koch is the projection designer, and his work here is stellar.)

The trailer is comedy gold, and it sends the audience out on a high note. A good thing, too; Bioh has enjoyed acclaim with the 2017 breakout hit School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play, and last summer's Merry Wives at Shakespeare in the Park, but this effort is a bit weaker than its predecessors. Nollywood Dreams, which showcases some talented young people and an attention-getting production design, is certainly good for a few laughs. But it also passes in a flash, not leaving much of an impression.

At heart a Cinderella story, Nollywood Dreams proceeds apace to its happy ending, barely taking time to pause for moments of conflict. When Gbenga Ezie, a film director back from Hollywood exile, announces that his latest project -- it's called The Comfort Zone and, yes, the heroine is named Comfort -- will include an open casting call for the female lead, the news electrifies Ayamma Okafor, a young travel agent who yearns to become a screen siren. Despite her utter lack of experience, she soon finds herself in the running, her main competition being Fayola Ogunleye (the "Nigerian Halle Berry with Tina Turner legs"), a former child star who needs a hit to revive her sagging career. Complicating matters, the male lead, Wale Owusu, clearly has an eye for Ayamma.

It's a classic setup, one that could allow for plenty of off-camera intrigue, but Nollywood Dreams is rather noticeably lacking in incident. Bioh can be careless about getting her characters on- and offstage; at one point, Gbenga and Wale randomly wander into Ayamma's office looking for a Xerox copier. The playwright also introduces promising plot points, including one about wire fraud -- remember all those emails you've gotten, supposedly from Nigerian princes looking for investments? -- without making anything of them. Even the revelation that the plot of The Comfort Zone is based on Gbenga and Fayola's unhappy romantic history doesn't yield much in the way of conflict. Bioh puts Ayamma on a glide path to stardom, with very little to block her progress.

Indeed, the most engaging scenes unfold on the set of a television talk show presided over by Adenikeh, a combination of Hedda Hopper and Oprah Winfrey who mercilessly grills her guests about their personal lives. Outfitted in eye-searingly colorful outfits designed by Dede Ayite, the one-named actress Abena is a hilariously ulterior sob sister, pumping her audience for emotional reactions to her guests' confessions. Sound designer Palmer Hefferan punctuates these scenes with perfectly timed cues that run the gamut from gasps to sighs to cheers.

Aided by Saheem Ali's pacey, light-fingered direction, the cast keeps things buoyant even when nothing much is happening. Sandra Okuboyejo is radiant as Ayamma, holding fast to her dreams against the odds; it's impossible not to root for her. She enjoys a lively chemistry with Ade Otukoya as Wale, a charismatic charmer even when confessing his deep attachment to the wisdom found in Chicken Soup for the Soul. Nana Mensah is fun as Dede, Ayamma's sister, a wisecracking devotee of gossip magazines and the soaps; she even does well with a bit of lazy sitcom plotting in which, hiding offstage, she reacts vocally to a love scene between Ayamma and Wale. Charlie Hudson, III is a real smoothie as Gbenga, especially when handling two volatile actresses unhappily thrown together at an audition. Emana Rachelle is a little bit hobbled as Fayola, a character who exists to start a catfight that Bioh isn't really interested in pursuing, although she has a priceless moment when Fayola and Ayamma share a transparently false embrace for the TV camera.

In addition to the designers already mentioned, Arnulfo Maldonado provides three intensively detailed locations -- the sisters' home office, the film studio's lobby, and the talk show set - arranging for split-second changes that allow the action to move at a steady clip. The lighting, by David Weiner and Jiyoun Chang, is at its most amusing when adding to the glitz of Adenikeh's broadcasts.

And, as mentioned, the trailer for The Comfort Zone is an unqualified riot that deftly packs several plot details into its brief running time. (Fayola's performance as Comfort's Texan rival is one for the books.) MCC is probably smart to kick off its season with lighter fare, as audiences are clearly starved for a bit of fun. But even a frothy comedy can use a bit of a friction, if only to keep it from slipping from one's mind altogether. This a mildly amusing entertainment that rarely strays from its comfort zone. --David Barbour

(12 November 2021)

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