Theater review: ‘By the Way, Meet Vera Stark’ at Second Stage Theatre
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From New York — Playwright Lynn Nottage is best known now for her harrowing Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Ruined,” a play about a group of Congolese brothel workers surviving the aftermath of horrific wartime violence. But her subject matter isn’t always so dire and her style can be quite bouncy. Indeed, one of her strongest assets, as even “Ruined” found ample opportunity to flaunt, is her audacious humor.
For those who don’t know Nottage’s wide range, you’ll have to take my word that the author of such diverse works as “Intimate Apparel,” “Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine” and “Crumbs From the Table of Joy” has a penchant for parody and a flair for farce. Her latest play, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” which opened Monday at Second Stage Theatre, finds Nottage indulging this more playful side of her sensibility.
Inspired by the scene-stealing African American actress Theresa Harris, who appeared in the 1933 movie “Baby Face” playing Barbara Stanwyck’s bosom companion, the piece spryly imagines the back story of such a groundbreaking performer in the zingy tempo of movies from that period. The subject of racism in the film industry might not seem like an ideal fit for a comedy with a screwball twist, but Nottage is too clever to preach and too much a fan of the cinematic era she’s writing about not to entertain. The giddiness of the romp isn’t easy to sustain, but her sneaky cultural critique is delivered with an ingenious wink.
The play’s more original first half takes place in Hollywood in 1933, as the bright and capable Vera Stark (Sanaa Lathan), the Harris-like figure, furtively pursues her Hollywood dream while working as a maid and confidant of Gloria Mitchell (Stephanie J. Block, having a flamboyant field day), a starlet who has been dubbed “America’s little sweetie pie.” The less sharp second half is set in 1973, when Vera appears on a TV talk show as a washed-up Las Vegas trouper, and in 2003, during a colloquium in which outré intellectuals take turns trying to answer the baffling question, “What happened to Vera Stark?” Life and art freely imitate each other in Nottage’s comedy, and the production, expertly directed by Jo Bonney with a crackling, versatile cast that includes Tony-winner Karen Olivo (“West Side Story”) and a charismatic Daniel Breaker (“Passing Strange”), enjoys blurring the boundaries between film and reality. A luxurious old-fashioned movie palace curtain is part of Neil Patel’s fabulously stagey scenic design and the authentic costumes by ESosa look as if they were retrieved from a studio vault.
When we first encounter Vera, she’s helping Gloria run lines for a part in the upcoming film “The Belle of New Orleans.” The two are in Gloria’s froufrou living room, where the diva, reclining on a divan, is free to let her hair down (in other words, pout like a baby, slurp gin and rely on Vera for everything). When bigwigs drop by, however, Gloria performs the role of movie star, exchanging B-movie banter and trying (as best she can, poor dear) to keep the cracks in her glamorous facade from showing.
What a contrast when the scene changes to Vera’s cramped, no-frills apartment, which she shares with two other aspiring actresses, Lottie (a hilariously sassy Kimberly Hébert Gregory), who’s not opposed to playing a slave as long as the role has lines, and Anna Mae (Olivo), a sexpot who tries passing for Brazilian while sleeping with industry movers and shakers. Through the lively exchanges of these women, Nottage lays out the possibilities of black actresses in the ’30s.
Vera herself would make a Diahann Carroll-like leading lady, except that she was born a few decades too early. But she may still have a shot at getting cast in “The Belle of New Orleans,” having just met Leroy (Breaker), the charming, smooth-talking chauffeur of director Maximillian Von Oster (Kevin Isola, captivatingly eccentric), an émigré who has just discovered his social conscience.
The second act fast-forwards Vera’s story, exploring it from a variety of unexpected angles. The finale of “The Belle of New Orleans” is screened, footage of an over-the-top interview she did with talk-show host Brad Donovan (David Garrison) is performed live and a panel of pundits (played by Breaker, Gregory and a riotous Olivo) is convened to debate her legacy. The lampooning isn’t quite as crisp as it is in the first half, but the sight of Vera struggling to stay relevant in the early ’70s while battling alcoholism, money problems and her own disappointment is both comically rich and culturally haunting. (Lathan, so believable as the competent, fresh-faced striver, is equally good as the has-been about to make a stumbling final exit.)
Nottage is attuned to the specific hardships of African American actors coveting fame throughout history, and her irony detector can’t help beeping as it surveys all the social progress that has been made. But she’s also aware of how anyone in the public eye is forced to sell a part of his or her soul. In this regard, she’s an equal opportunity satirist, sending up the performing seal in all of us.
But what’s most impressive about “Vera Stark” is the way it incorporates bits and pieces from the cinematic past to make its points. We don’t just go to the movies to escape but to discover the possibilities of our identity. Nottage is operating in a farcical mode, but underneath the lighthearted cleverness is a serious grappling with the representations that, for better or worse, define us.