'By the Way, Meet Vera Stark'

Joan Marcus

Lampooning the plight of African-Americans in old Hollywood gets complex.

Playwright Lynn Nottage breaks down the stereotypes and removes the veil of anonymity to delve into the lives of the African-American maids, cooks and nannies who populated vintage Hollywood movies in her clever yet frustrating By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.

A MacArthur Genius Award recipient and 2009 Pulitzer winner for Ruined, Nottage has written a comedy bubbling with delicious humor, even if it does take an unsatisfying turn. The playwright is interested not so much in such iconic representations of black servitude as Hattie McDaniel or Butterfly McQueen as in less-famous beauties including Theresa Harris and Nina Mae McKinney, whose screen roles suggested greater dignity and complexity. Those women are conjured in the fictitious Vera Stark, a beautiful, sassy aspiring actress embodied in a brilliantly layered performance by Sanaa Lathan.

The scalloped purple curtain rises to reveal Neil Patel's tongue-in-cheek take on classic Hollywood glamour, all creamy plush and silky drapes, crowned by a conspicuous chandelier. Stretched on a chaise is "America's little sweetie pie," Gloria Mitchell (Stephanie J. Block). Struggling to hold on to her fading star, Gloria is preparing to test for the lead in The Belle of New Orleans, a consumptive octoroon virgin in a Louisiana whorehouse. Reading opposite the self-dramatizing actress is her tart-tongued maid, Vera, whose entreaties to Gloria to get her an audition for the movie are ignored.

In Jo Bonney's incisive, superbly cast production, the sets appear to have been built on a Hollywood backlot. The first-act scenes shift among Gloria's home, the drab apartment Vera shares with two other underemployed black actresses and the studio. The writer's and director's love for films of the period and for on- and offscreen dream-factory archetypes is infectious.

David Garrison is the essence of the irritable studio boss ("If you're gonna give 'em slaves, give 'em happy ones"), and Kevin Isola nails it as Von Oster, the Russian-emigre director who gives him tsuris by insisting on gritty realism over romance. Daniel Breaker drolly conveys the stirrings of black empowerment as Von Oster's Man Friday, Leroy Barksdale, a jazz musician with a yen for Vera. Even better are Vera's roommates, Lottie (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) and Anna Mae (Karen Olivo). Lottie lights up at news of a Southern epic being cast ("Slaves? With lines?"), while light-skinned Anna Mae's strategy is to pass herself off as a Brazilian spitfire.

Period lampoonery can run out of steam, but Nottage and Bonney display a sharp grasp of screwball comedy, peppering the scenes with just enough anachronistic attitude to give them a subversive twist. Humor has often factored in Nottage's plays, but rarely, if ever, have they been this flat-out funny. This is especially true when Lathan, Block and the priceless Gregory are in charge. Watching Vera and Lottie seize their moment to play Von Oster's idea of real "Negroes of the earth" is a riot.

At the top of Act 2, an extended black-and-white clip (made by filmmaker Tony Gerber) of Gloria's deathbed scene from Belle of New Orleans is a perfect evocation of '30s Hollywood melodrama, right down to the syrupy score and shimmering lighting. It also marks Vera's breakout role. But Nottage's play deflates when it shifts to a 2003 panel discussion of Vera's legacy and mysterious disappearance from public life following a boozy talk-show appearance in 1973.

The play's probing intelligence is undercut by the imbalance between its sublime parody of 1930s Hollywood and its attempt to step outside and examine the subject through the contemporary lens of celebrity, semiotics, film theory, gender studies and social politics.

That's not to say this becomes a dry dissertation on race and representation. It's quite the opposite; Nottage and the actors have wicked fun tackling other stereotypes in the intellectual arena. But Vera Stark is about African-American women using their wiles to mold themselves into what the white mainstream expected of them. The characters in Act 1 illuminate that process far more revealingly than the second-act culture commentators fighting to impose their personal perspective.

Both the panel and the re-enacted TV footage give the cast rich comic leeway to create secondary characters, notably Olivo as a radical lesbian slam poet, Isola as a Limey glam rocker and Breaker as a passionate film geek who might be the lost child of Gene Shalit and Cornel West. Lathan also gets to reinvent Vera in messy Eartha Kitt mode, long after her fame had crested and crashed. Her transformation is horrifying, hilarious and transfixing, and costumer ESosa outdoes himself with her loud getup.

Gloria and Vera's chat-show reunion and accompanying commentary allow Nottage to juggle truth and conjecture in the women's personal and intertwined histories. However, this material sits uncomfortably between sketch comedy and analytical discourse, causing too jarring a shift from the first act's less-effortful screwball antics. Ending with the moderator asking, "Questions?" is a shrewd stroke, but it also heightens the sense that Nottage hasn't entirely worked out where she wants to go with the play.

That said, this entertaining production explores a fascinating and unconventional subject for stage treatment. And Lathan, absent from New York theater since 2004's A Raisin in the Sun, is dazzling.

Venue Second Stage Theatre, New York (Through May 29)
Cast Stephanie J. Block, Daniel Breaker, David Garrison, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Kevin Isola, Sanaa Lathan, Karen Olivo
Playwright Lynn Nottage
Director Jo Bonney