“Back to the Real,” a funny play by Pia Wilson, given a sparkly world premiere at New Brunswick’s Crossroads Theatre, works best when it sticks to its primary point: identity and how we let it define and sometimes hamper us.
The difference between the direct approach and roaming further afield is visible in the two acts of Wilson’s generally smart comedy that cannily depicts how the extraneous gets in the way of the essential.
Wilson’s first act sprawls. It doesn’t seem to have a core or secure dramatic aim as it drifts from current events, particularly Donald Trump’s election, to the more germane bumps in the romantic road of a close brother and sister and the likely loves of their lives.
Her political material is as entertaining as the plot that drives “Back to the Real,” but it tends to overstate and overwhelm the main business. The play has enough material and enough to say about it to render the news analysis unnecessary and intrusive once it establishes how characters feel and how much their feelings may influence their individual reactions to one another.
When points of view become repetitive or preachy, they appear overdone and even a tad pandering. They also make it seem as if Wilson is wandering dramatically and is creating random scenes that are not cohering into a solid play.
This sense of jumble over tight organization is exacerbated by a device Wilson will eventually use successfully, one in which she removes two of the characters, the self-proclaimed protagonist, Mandy (Regan Sims), and the comedic observer, Yolanda (Aaliyah Habeeb), from the formal action to a fantasy in which Mandy comments on the action and Yolanda does pun-ridden stand-up comedy.
Though these first-act shenanigans amuse, they obscure the fact Wilson is a keen observer with a lot of shrewd things to say and an astute method of depicting them in play form.
This is clear in the play’s second act, which heads unswerving;y towards its points and coalesces “Back to the Real” into a perceptive, wise, and satisfying piece.
Brother and sister Yolanda and David (Landon G. Woodson) don’t need passion about politics or stand-up reverie to make a play or a point. They and their girlfriends of the moment, Katrina (Victoria Janicki) with Yolanda and Mandy with David, concoct enough conflict by exhibiting or being mired in biases, discriminations, and outright prejudices that threaten the path to true love.
Yolanda and Katrina are lesbians. The issue between them is Katrina is LBGTQ and proud while Yolanda is closeted and frightened of rejection from her beloved church. Wilson builds off these problems by adding the disapproval of Yolanda’s parents.
David is proud of what he considers to be his unmitigated African-American blood. He disdains what is fashionably called white privilege and eschews anything remotely Caucasian, an attitude that will ripen into a clash when Mandy discloses a DNA test shows her to have 54.6 percent European roots.
Even before Mandy’s revelation, David and Yolanda go into a tirade about the advantages light-skinned black people have over darker-hued folks like themselves. Katrina and Mandy are both light-skinned, and they talk about how they suffered.
“Back to the Real” fuses beautifully as the disputes among the couples emerge. Wilson touches on the important way we let nonsense influence more honest reactions towards people and the way stereotype or predisposition prevents taking each individual as he or she comes, especially when love is involved.
At its best “Back to the Real” covers poignant and crucial ground. It exposes common idiocy that keeps people apart, whether in a relationship or life in general. It shows even more clearly how ludicrous superficial factors are when romance is flowering and likely to yield happy and contenting harvests if people would just let love grow in peace.
The joy is that Wilson couches her perspicacity and vital reflections in hilarity. Wilson knows her way around a joke, and “Back to the Real” is chocked full of good ones. Each character has a zinger to deliver, and laugh lines play as natural to the wit of that character as opposed to gagwriting.
Even in the muddier first-act passages, Wilson’s dialogue breezes. Joy and animation are constant parts of Crossroads’ Marshall Jones III’s flawless staging. Jones keeps all light and bright, slowing down only when discussion comes to head, as in a key sequence featuring Yolanda and Katrina. Wilson and Jones present the weighty in the form of a lark, and it is quite rousing and entertaining.
Jones’ cast is supple, smooth, and ready for comedy. Regan Sims is a loveable bundle of nerves hiding a true Earth mother as Mandy. She exudes personality, and her bursts of panic and elation are both funny and masterfully played. Landon G. Woodson provides the same energy as the emotional, expressive David.
Aaliyah Habeeb wrings your heart, spouts common sense, and makes you laugh as the complex Yolanda, who wants so much to be accepted as herself while pleasing all who make up her world. Victoria Janicki finds Katrina’s smart and unbridled core. She conveys the character’s standards while keep her human, bearable, and usually right.
Someone in the Crossroads lobby commented she would like set designer Gennie Neuman-Lambert to decorate her house. Amen to that. Lauren K. McLaughlin’s costumes, from Mandy’s printed yoga pants to David’s activist T-shirts, are spot-on. Max Grano de Oro’s lighting adds to the brisk feel Jones implants. Kari Berntson’s sound design makes sharp comedy from Mandy’s tape stoppages.
Back to the Real, Crossroads Theater, Mastrobuono Theater, 85 George Street, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, May 20. $35 to $55. 732-545-8100 or www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org