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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark

"How come in Los Angeles nobody actually does what they do? And everybody's always on their way to something else." —Vera Stark.
Amanda Detmer and Sanaa Lathan
(Photo credit: Michael Lamont)
The title of Lynn Nottage's newest play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark pushes you to play a part. Whether you read it or say it aloud, you can't help but strike an air of sociable condescension. And why shouldn't we be called on to act? Everyone else in this cunningly blithe comedy works overtime to make their lives into an audience-pleasing performance.

Nottage creates bracing yuks out of the bitter truths facing African-American performers in three time periods — the '30's, '70's, and just after the new millennium. This is a stylistic U-turn from her scorched-earth, Pulitzer-Prize winning drama Ruined. Even within the comedy, she proves a master of a staggering number of styles.

First up is an overripe melodramatic exchange between a black maid and a rich white woman in an opulent, art-deco living room. Once it becomes clear this is a rehearsal for an upcoming film audition, the style shifts into raucous screwball comedy.

The self-possessed Vera really is a maid, prepping her self-obsessed employer Gloria Mitchell (Amanda Detmer) for a shot at playing the title role in The Belle of New Orleans. She needs to segue fast out of her stinking status as America's aging "little cutie pie." Vera sees the film as her big chance as well to escape a life of shrinking opportunities.

Everyone's desperate here but they're also terrifically good company, especially Vera's roommate Lottie (the bountifully talented Kimberly Hebert Gregory). Now a seamstress, she used to be the "best damned shimmier" on Broadway and also played Juliet. She gives Vera beguiling samples of both. This is friendship as performance, when no one else is willing to watch.

Her other roommate Anna Mae (Merle Dandridge) has turned her social life into a grand act. She's light-skinned enough to pass herself off as Anna Maria Fernando of Rio de Janeiro, on the lookout for a sugar daddy.

When potential swain Leroy (Kevin Carroll) comes on to Vera, he presents himself boastfully as the film director's "Man Friday." Soon he's revealed to be just the man's driver. What he really wants to be is a trained jazz composer. He woos her by beating out rhythms on his body. This is romance as performance, and isn't it always?

In true screwball fashion, everyone winds up in the same place for the finale to act one. Gloria throws a party, with the studio head and director in attendance. She secretly tosses back even more drinks than usual: "That's better. I almost feel myself."

The women all jockey hilariously for parts in the film. The director wants the film to be authentic. But his vision of a slave is cluttered with cliches, which Vera eagerly adopts. She pretends to have had a stereotypically tragic past. The currents of the play come together as she sings the blues. The bathetic number is ridiculous, but it eventually mines real feeling. This is parodic performance as paradoxical revealer of truth, which becomes the guiding principle for the broader second half.

When we get there we realize that Meet Vera Stark, like Bruce Norris' recent Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park, is a descendant of Brit writer Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9 and Top Girls. They all entertainingly examine race and class. And they change up time periods and cast lists to keep us, in Brechtian fashion, attuned more to the themes than story or character arcs.

Churchill's plays grow more textured and emotional as they proceed. Her American children, who are more comically-minded, not so much. Instead, both use quick codas to clue us into their more serious underpinnings. Nottage starts her second act with an extended film version of the audition scene that Gloria and Vera rehearsed at the top of the play. It's a beautifully rendered approximation of '30's melodramas made by Nottage's husband, Tony Gerber.

The language and music evoke a period style that seems ridiculous by today's standards. The actors play it relatively straight though and, like Vera's blues number, generate some honest emotion.

The lights then rise on a 2003 colloquium Vera's career. The broadly conceived setting sends up post-modern academia and, in particular, African-American cultural historians. The commentators frequently turn upstage to watch "clips" from a 1973 talk show, a spot-on echo of The Mike Douglas Show, enacted on a platform. All the personalities on display, but one, seem calcified for ready-made consumption. This is performance as mummification.

Vera's the only exception, a guest on the TV show in her last known public appearance. She's now a sight gag, dressed by costumer ESosa (with his typical eye-popping imagination and finesse) in a flamboyant poncho-kaftan creation. She looks like a cross between Eartha Kitt and Martha Raye from the trippy '70's Saturday morning show The Bugaloos. And she acts like a drunk loose-cannon.

It's all fascinating but oh so distancing, emotionally and literally, as Lathan never leaves upstage. The first act vividly showed us what happens to Vera. The second discusses what happened to her. Even when she's part of the talk, she's sidelined from any vital action.

Nottage dramatizes in structural terms the situation facing African-American actresses of the time. If we feel robbed of the vital Vera confidently holding center stage, think how hard it must have been for the real Veras like Theresa Harris, Louise Beavers and Nina Mae McKinney to handle their professional marginalization.

Denied access to her bodacious beauty, Lathan's freed to demonstrate some socko character-actress chops. She fights as triumphantly through the layers of theatrical conceits and mod make-up as Vera fights through banal chat show banter, sorry circumstances and controlled substances to be truthful and present.

The TV host springs a surprise on a gobsmacked Vera in the act's only instance of dramatic action. Gloria joins the dais. Like a '70's version of Madonna, she now sports a Brit accent from years living abroad. When Gloria announces her intention to share a "terrible secret," Vera's genuinely shocked. Her old pal then delivers the news that she's retiring from acting, but we see that Vera expected a more personal revelation. Nottage plays fair, giving us enough tidbits along the way to figure out the real skinny. The information sheds new light on the women's relationship, but it remains frustratingly undeveloped.

Jo Bonney's fleet-footed production would benefit from placing just a bit more weight throughout on their complicated bond. It would bring some focused momentum to the second act and allow that coda to land.

Despite its imperfections, the bravura production has lost little luster in the lush Los Angeles re-mounting of the original off-Broadway staging. (Review) Differences provide some even trades. Neil Patel's set remains a delight. The taller proscenium and stadium seating off-Broadway benefited the sound-stage feel of the first act. But the convex art deco panels festooning the more traditional Geffen proscenium give the second act the feel of taking place within an old TV.

Lathan and Gregory, both holdovers from the original cast, remain perfection. Detmer could have more fun but the revelation and her film performance prove more believable than before. The rest don't match the first act performances of their predecessors but make for a more successful second act.

Mather Zickel as the pretentious film director and a flirty British rock and roll blues singer is unrecognizable role to role. Spencer Garrett doesn't entirely convince as a Jewish studio head, but is perfect as the affably bland talk show host. Kevin Carroll lacks confidence displaying Leroy's musical abilities in act one but convinces as the lead commentator. In yet another medium sampled, documentary footage of an older Leroy, Carroll devastates with the show's only moments of raw emotion.

By the way, I loved meeting Vera Stark. Learning what happened to her later inspires admiration more than passion. Nonetheless, I urge you to make her acquaintance.

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Jo Bonney

Cast: Kevin T. Carroll (Leroy Barksdale/Herb Forrester), Merle Dandridge (Anne Mae/Afua Assata Ejobo), Amanda Detmer (Gloria Mitchell), Spencer Garrett (Fredrick Slasvick/Brad Donovan), Kimberly H?ert Gregory (Lottie/Carmen Levy-Green), Sanaa Lathan (Vera Stark), Mather Zickel (Maximillian Von Oster/Peter Rhys-Davies).
Scenic design by Neil Patel
Lighting design by Jeff Croiter
Costume design by ESosa
Original music and sound design by John Gromada
Film by Tony Gerber
Projection design by Shawn Sagady
Stage Manager: Mary Michele Miner
Running Time: Approx 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission.
The Geffen Playhouse 10886 Le Conte Avenue Los Angeles, CA 90024
Runs Tuesday – Sunday through Oct. 28, 2012
Reviewed by Jon Magaril
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