Revival of biting satire by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage at Signature.
By: Patrick Christiano
February 20, 2019: Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, a biting and astutely observed satire, by the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, is being revived for The Signature Theatre through March 10. In Vera Stark Nottage uses a captivating blend of parody, broad humor, academic wit, social comment and even drama, to create a biting satire on African American women in film. Her dazzling comedy, inspired by a small-time film actress, Theresa Harris, best known for her portrayals of maids, is grounded in layers of dense irony. Nottage wrote Vera Stark in between her two Pulitzer Prize winners, Ruined and Sweat, serious violent plays, and she is in top form, brilliantly playful.
Her hilarious story begins in Hollywood 1933 and follows Vera Stark, an African American maid, who becomes a film star during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Vera, played by Jessica Frances Dukes, just happens to be the maid to an aging film star, once Hollywood’s adored sweetie-pie, Gloria Mitchell, played by Jenni Barber. When the play begins the two women are in Gloria’s glamorous living room running lines from The Belle of New Orleans, a film intended for a major studio release that could possibly revive Gloria’s sagging career. Gloria has been asked to audition, but she is a reluctant mess relying on Vera’s steady and smart support.
In the first act while building the situation and characters, Nottage makes witty comments on the oppression of women in film skewing the widespread racism and sexism of the studio system, particularly when Vera and her colleagues “act out” stereotypical behavior just to get an audition to play a stereotypical “slave with lines.”
The ingenious second act jumps forward to 2003 where a group of scholars at a film seminar are looking back at Vera Stark’s long career. First, they are viewing a black-and-white film clip of Vera and Gloria from the now classic, The Belle of New Orleans, commenting on what they believe happened back in 1933. Then Nottage juxtaposes the real film clip with a clever theatrical device, a live reconstruction of a vintage 1973 TV talk show with the older Vera and Gloria, which the scholars stop and start to dissect with their pretentious insights.
The charming Jessica Frances Dukes makes Vera utterly believable with a strong colorful performance that sustains the character’s lively humanity. Jenni Barber is deliciously funny as the self-absorbed Gloria and the two women have nice chemistry and a special bond that is delightful to witness.
The supporting players are equally outstanding and so accomplished they could do anything. Heather Alicia Simms, Carra Patterson, Warner Miller, David Turner, and Manoel Felciano double up in very funny dual roles.
Kamilah Forbes’ uneven revival for the Signature is much broader than Jo Bonney’s original staging for Second Stage in 2011, and this becomes a problem. Going too broad with this comedy actually-dilutes the humor, especially in the second act when the action by the film scholars looking back at a 1973 TV talk show with Vera and Gloria, plays like sketch comedy.
The playwright’s highly theatrical concept requires a more delicate balance of rhythms and tones. Forbes’ broad staging brings out the play’s primary weakness, over-writing, and pushes segments, intended to be send-ups, into over the top mugging. I don’t think Nottage ever intended this to be farce.
Nonetheless, Nottage’s message about how artists, both black and white, must struggle and ultimately compromise themselves to secure work and remain successful in the film industry still comes through. Also resonant is a serious message about how African American women are depicted in the media, which seems to morph through the decades with one constant, we see what we want to see.
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark opened on February 19 and runs through March 10 at the Signature Theatre Company at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue—Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7:30pm. Running time: two hours and 20 mins. including intermission. $35. (212) 244-7529. www.signaturetheatre.org.
Photography: Joan Marcus