Two girls, a "ladies' man" and the Archangel Michael walk into a diner.
It's not the start of a joke, but it could be: Although it contains moments of drama, mystery, romance and deep emotion, Albany Civic Theater's production of "Daddy's Girl" is a comedy at heart.
The show, which opens Feb. 15, is set in Maudie's Diner in Kansas City, Missouri. Maudie herself, who owned the diner with her husband, Benard, died 25 years ago — at least in body. Her spirit (played by Jessica Lenox) inhabits a portrait hanging above the diner's seating area, and offers sage advice only Benard (Chuck Skinner) can hear.
Maudie isn't Benard's sole spiritual adviser. At her urging, Michael, the angel (John Sams), wanders into the diner to talk to Benard, too — but once again, Benard is the only one who can tell he exists.
Benard has mostly adjusted to life without his wife's physical presence. And until now, he thought he had mostly adjusted to the agonizing decision he made 25 years ago to give up his infant daughter, Elizabeth, for adoption.
Then, thanks to Michael, two girls walk into the diner. Both Lizzy and E.L. (Claire Simpson and Jamie Muller) share his daughter's birthdate. Both come from the same orphanage.
Is one his baby? But which? And when he finds out more about them, does he really want either of them to be?
"It's the story of love and something that's been lost that's been found again," explained Scott Harvey, the director.
Harvey chose the play because he directed another of playwright Gary Ray Stapp's works, "The Trouble With Cats," in 2017. He liked Sapp's writing style, especially the sarcasm, which feels real and natural, he said.
Parts of the story are poignant, but in the end, Harvey said, he really wants audiences to leave having had a good laugh. "That's why I like doing the comedies," he said. "I want the audience to enjoy themselves."
The story leaves the cast laughing, too, said Stephanie Marie, the assistant director.
"They definitely make us laugh at night. They make each other laugh," she said. "I needed to give Chuck the note to stop smiling. He's talking to somebody he doesn't really like."
Much of the fun comes from the creative chaos of the various characters: frequent customer Shirtless Bob (Allen Pilgrim); Darlynn (Amy MacRostie), who has been trying to win Benard for years; biker mama Big Earl Ella (Angeliki de Morgan), who's determined to give her a run for her money; Betsy, the featherbrained waitress (Serenity Wilson); Walter, her luckless swain (Tyler Anderson); and Alex, the resident ladykiller (Daran Gosnell), who complicates matters when he decides one of Benard's potential daughters will be his next conquest.
Harvey gave the actors the freedom to play with their roles to find the best comic notes. Best friends Violet and Daisy, for instance (Catherine Dorn and Jo Judge), are women of a certain age who frequent the diner and spend most of their time trying to get Betsy's attention.
"Jo and I sat down and said, what things can we do when we sit on stage for 40 pages with nothing to say?" Dorn said. So they worked up their own props: crossword puzzle. Deck of cards. A copy of the National Enquirer. A giant bottle of hand sanitizer. And, Dorn said with glee, "We each get to take a nap."
In the end, questions are answered, mysteries are solved, romances begin and "Daddy's Girl" comes home — a happy ending audiences can really use right now, Harvey said.
"This is a good break for everyone," he said, "to just come in and laugh."