Blessed with a cast that seems positively delighted to indulge in risible stage mischief, director Raymond O. Caldwell works the levers of Bioh’s satire with rewarding dexterity. Chief among his gifted players are Ernaisja Curry and Renea S. Brown as show-business-obsessed sisters, and Jacqueline Youm as a supercharged Lagos TV talk show host so brimming with enthusiasm that she out-Oprahs Oprah. This is not to slight Yao Dogbe, Yetunde Felix-Ukwu and Joel Ashur, all of whom provide giddy portraits of the sleazy manipulation, craven desperation and boundless self-regard inherent in an industry of vanity everlasting.
Caldwell’s production is a cut above the original off-Broadway version, which tended to overstress the sitcom mechanics. Caldwell drills down on character, and so the improbable plot better serves Bioh’s amusingly driven personalities. The playwright is regularly drawing endearingly ironic pictures of West African culture for American audiences. She did it last summer, too, in Central Park, in an enjoyably farcical adaptation of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” transplanted to a Harlem enclave of immigrants from Senegal and other African countries.
In revealing so wryly a part of the world we’re exposed to far too infrequently, Bioh manages to successfully reinvigorate well-trod comic genres. It also helps that her antennae for sharp portraiture are tilted toward compassion. In “Nollywood Dreams,” her heroine is Curry’s Ayamma Okafor, a Lagos travel agent who fancies herself an undiscovered film star. Ayamma’s competitive sister, Brown’s Dede, endlessly tries to pop her aspirational balloons. But when an open audition is announced for “The Comfort Zone,” a soapy rom-com, Ayamma becomes the unlikely object of fascination for both its suave male lead, Ashur’s Wale Owusu, and Dogbe’s shady producer, Gbenga Ezie.
The turntable set by Jonathan Dahm Robertson revolves smoothly with Bioh’s tale spinning, landing on the travel agency the sisters run, grudgingly, for their parents; Gbenga’s threadbare production office; and, most engagingly, the set of a TV gabfest hosted by Youm’s single-named Adenikeh. Outfitted gloriously by Brandee Mathies in riots of color and dazzling caps and head wraps, Adenikeh mugs for the unseen camera in what can only be described as a state of eternal exclamation point.
Egging on the studio audience (that’s us), Adenikeh prods her celebrity guests for the salacious skinny (her role model may be closer to Wendy Williams). The interludes make for juicy lampoons of that unfortunate Western export, oleaginous showbiz faux-intimacy. This works especially well when Adenikeh grills Fayola Ogunleye, a fading movie luminary (excellently embodied by Felix-Ukwu) whose standing in the film community is threatened by the ambitious Ayamma.
The comedy acknowledges without condescension the local embrace of, even admiration for, the superficial values of Hollywood; we root for Ayamma to triumph, even though the world to which she seeks entry is hardly worthy of a woman of such energy and resourcefulness. It’s a credit to Curry that Ayamma’s spirit prevails even through the silliest of plot twists, as when the superstar she and Dede drool over just happens by coincidence to turn up in their travel bureau.
In a role that could easily descend into overeager caricature, Brown makes for an outstanding Dede. The moment in which she confronts the hunky Wale allows the actress to reveal her deft comic reflexes: Her eyes betray a deep desire to communicate intelligently, although the only sound Dede is able to produce is an intermittent, high-pitched squeal. Ashur offers a suave Wale who conveys both the character’s jaded self-assurance and bedrock sincerity. And the likable Dogbe has the roguish Gbenga’s duplicity — mirrored in the script of the hilariously egregious “The Comfort Zone” — embedded winningly in his performance.
Caldwell orchestrates it all with a tangible application of joy, especially in the scenes with that life force by the name of Adenikeh. Youm’s buoyant grasp of her assignment is so full of Bioh-propelled gusto you’re inclined to wonder how to say “must-see TV” in Yoruba.
Nollywood Dreams, by Jocelyn Bioh. Directed by Raymond O. Caldwell. Sets, Jonathan Dahm Robertson; costumes, Brandee Mathies; lighting, Harold F. Burgess II; sound, Nick Hernandez; projections, Kelly Colburn. About 100 minutes. Through July 3 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. 240-644-1100. roundhousetheatre.org.