Imagine the vintage sitcom Sanford and Son somehow fusing with Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit and you get some idea of what to expect in The Soul Collector, the bright and inventive play by David Emerson Toney receiving a robust world premiere production from Everyman Theatre.
The Soul Collector, at heart, is a fable, and like any good fable, it gets its moral across while spinning an entertaining yarn. Toney's tale manages to pull several surprises along the way, some purely theatrical in the best sense of the word, others involving little sidesteps of plot.
Set in Cleveland in 1972, the play revolves around Cedric (Jefferson A. Russell) and his nephew (DeMargio House), who both work for the sanitation department. They have an eye for things some folks, usually in the white suburbs, consider disposable, and that results in an overstuffed apartment.
"Don't you know garbagemen don't bring their work home? It's garbage," says their landlady, Mrs. Coleman (Aakhu TuahNera Freeman). "That's why people put it outside." But to Cedric, well-used furniture, objets d'(bad) art and electronic appliances are merely "in various stages of antiquity."
Uncle and nephew each harbors distinctive dreams of what to do with all the money that will surely someday be generated from the acquisitions, but those dreams are interrupted when a particularly promising curbside discovery turns out to hold something besides dust.
Their lives become entwined with a woman possessed by two spirits, neither remotely connected to her African-American community. In sorting out her predicament, and also dealing with a curious, dapper gentleman in the building who says he's selling Girl Scout cookies, Cedric and Darnell have their work cut out for them.
The landlady and her husband, a postman on disability with a weakness for the Merv Griffin Show, have experience navigating the land of the restless dead and eagerly lend their support.
I know what you're thinking. This all sounds terribly silly and inconsequential, hardly the stuff of a play for 2009. But don't underestimate Toney's gift for taking the unlikely and running with it (his association of Christmas music with the character of Darnell is at once impossible, hilarious and touching) and thwarting potential cliches in the nick of time, not to mention his ear for natural dialogue.
On opening night last weekend, that dialogue was realized with a good deal of flair by a cast astutely directed by Jennifer L. Nelson, whose own sense of timing complements Toney's neatly.
Erika Rose offered something of a tour de force as the dually haunted Claire, creating - in physicality as much as voice - two totally different, superbly delineated, rather endearing characters. Russell's Cedric was a vivid presence. House revealed a few rough edges in technique but captured Darnell's naivete with effective touches.
Freeman brought lots of fire and nice to the role of Mrs. Coleman. Doug Brown, as the long-suffering Mr. Coleman, started off a bit stiff, but soon registered strongly. As the Wisher, the demonic figure who meets unexpected resistance from the unlikely garbagemen and their friends, Craig Wallace mixed suavity and menace persuasively.
Daniel Ettinger's set design has a starring role in the production, each nook and cranny of the apartment crammed just so, and Jay A. Herzog's lighting provided telling support.
The play does not aim for grand statements - Darnell's realization at the end that "I got all the family I need" isn't exactly profound - but it imparts its humbler lessons about life, love and regret within a comical framework that never runs out of steam. In the end, it's the unexpected way that Toney mixes that humor, even of the broadest sort, with the fantastical that gives his new work its, well, soul.
If you go
The Soul Collector runs through June 21 at the Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St. Tickets are . $26-$38. Call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org for showtimes.