Since her breakthrough play “Intimate Apparel” in 2003 (seen at the Mark Taper Forum in 2004), and her Pulitzer Prize winning drama “Ruined” in 2009, playwright Lynn Nottage now makes a 180-degree turn in subject matter with an interesting and provocative serio-comedy entitled “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark”. It just opened at the prestigious Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.
“Vera Stark”, cleverly directed by Jo Bonney tells the story of how actors of color barely managed to survive inside the Hollywood studio system of the 1930’s and 40’s. If one was an actor of color, despite one’s talent level, you were relegated to playing servant and maid roles if female. If male, you might fare slightly better by portraying railroad porters, handymen and chauffeurs. Bonney presents her cast and the complicated story of “Vera Stark” in a most unusual way for a straight stage play. She blends techniques from three different mediums: those of stage, screen, and TV, covering three different time periods beginning with 1933, then 1973, and finally 2003; ending up with a hybrid production that I’m not sure really works to the story’s advantage.
We meet a very beautiful, and obviously talented Vera Stark (Sanaa Lathan), a maid to Hollywood actress Gloria Mitchell (Amanda Detmer). As the play opens the two women are seen rehearsing a scene from a movie being filmed in the play within a play. Lathan and Detmer compliment one another throughout the play in their scenes as actors with smooth and confident performances,
Vera is part of a small group of aspiring actors who share digs in Hollywood as they wait and hope for that “big break”. For me, the play really begins here, in 1933, at the actors’ small apartment. Here we get the hopes, dreams, and career strategies, as well as their priorities laid out.
Playing both Lottie and Carmen Levy-Green is the terrific and sassy Kimberly Hebert Gregory, who scores by playing her two roles with nuanced comedy timing. Merle Dandridge sexily and seductively passes herself off as Brazilian actress Anna Mae, and later on plays the character Afua Assata Ejobo a panelist at a 2003 conference, discussing the career of Vera Stark and whatever became of her.
The character of Leroy Barksdale, a chauffeur to a studio film director is nicely assayed by Kevin T. Carroll in Act I and Carroll plays Herb Forrester, an academic and moderator, in Act II. He leads a panel discussion concerning the breakthrough rise and alcoholic fall of Vera Stark as a Hollywood star actress.
Spencer Garrett neatly handles the dual roles of Frederick Slasvick and TV Host Brad Donovan. The characters of Maximillion Von Oster, the movie director of “The Belle of New Orleans” (the movie seen in the play-within- a-play that makes Vera a new Hollywood star) and the role of Peter Rhys-Davies, are both performed by Mather Zickel. If the synopsis sounds complicated, it’s because it is complicated and convoluted as well. But, the performances never suffer the fate of the unusual script-structure approach of Nottage in the telling of a story that needed to be told.
The production nicely fits into the Gil Cates Theatre, thanks to a very clever set design by Neil Patel. Patel has designed three different sets with imagination and flair that give the cast the necessary space they need to work their magic. Lighting designer Jeff Croiter paints the stage in varying degrees of light, which dramatically shows off the costumes designed by ESosa to their maximum effect. The projection designer Shawn Sagady has judiciously employed a series of movie and projection designs that enrich and are so necessary in helping to tell the story of the title character.
“By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” plays at the Geffen Playhouse through October 28, 2012. For tickets and information call the box office at 310-208-5454.