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Theatre in Review: By the Way, Meet Vera Stark (Signature Theatre Company)

Heather Alicia Simms, Jessica Frances Dukes. Photo: Joan Marcus.

"Welcome to the hall of mirrors, honey." This remark, made by the title character of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, comments on a Hollywood party where practically everyone -- hostess, guests, and staff -- has assumed a false persona, but it's also an excellent description of the play itself. One part screwball comedy (in the style of a Billy Wilder or Howard Hawks film) and one part spoof of academia, this one-of-a-kind work is also a show business saga spread out over several decades, offering abundant laughter poised on top of a mountain of tragedy. It has volumes to say about race and representation in American film -- and American life.

In 1933, Vera, who is black, works as a maid for movie star Gloria Mitchell. Billed as "America's Little Sweetie Pie," Gloria is to normal humans what zircon is to diamonds -- a total synthetic. She's a mass of great-lady mannerisms culled from Mary Pickford, Norma Shearer, Olivia de Havilland, and every other sweet young thing who ever tossed her golden curls in front a camera. As the lights come up, Vera is running lines with Gloria, who -- horror of horrors -- is being made to audition for the lead in a moonlight-and-juleps romance titled The Belle of New Orleans. It's uphill work -- Gloria, as per usual, is in a state, stumbling over her lines -- but Vera, an expert in tough love, bucks her up, saying, "I don't have to tell you, every actress with halfway good teeth wants this role. And believe me, they'll do whatever it takes to get it."

Only a few minutes in, you might notice that Gloria and Vera are awfully chummy for mistress and maid. In truth, they grew up together on the vaudeville circuit, and are cousins or -- if I'm reading the script correctly -- possibly half-sisters. Vera also has a vested interest in Gloria landing the role: The leading lady has a faithful servant, and it's a pretty juicy role at a time when peeling a grape for Mae West is the most a black actress can hope for. As Vera describes The Belle of New Orleans to her friend, Lottie, it is "a Southern epic! Magnolia and petticoats. You know what else it means -- cotton and slaves." "Slaves? With lines?" asks Lottie. "Slaves with lines, honey," Vera replies.

Lottie is an out-of-work actress, too, as is their friend Anna Mae, who, on the make for a prominent director, has restyled herself as a Brazilian bombshell. Gloria throws a party intended to land herself the lead in The Belle, and everyone else shows up -- Vera and Lottie as the help and Anna Mae on the arm of Maximillian Von Oster, the pontificating Russian who thinks he can get studio funding for a gritty drama about French Quarter prostitutes. The affair is a dizzying festival of impostures. Gloria, whose heritage has been carefully suppressed, is angling to play an octoroon who passes for white. Vera, her black relative, serves the drinks while Anna Mae murders the English language with her lousy Latin accent. And while Gloria, bleary-eyed from multiple martinis, looks on in a rage, Von Oster coaches the smart and stylish Vera to act out her personal saga of oppression -- with Lottie in the background, humming "Go Down, Moses."

As it happens, The Belle of New Orleans gets made, with Gloria and Vera in roles that eerily mirror their real-life relationship -- and Lottie and Anna Mae in the supporting cast. The film is an instant classic, but, as we learn in Act II, it leaves a dubious legacy. The action jumps ahead to 2003 for a colloquium titled Rediscovering Vera Stark, in which three cultural critics of color ponder her legacy and speculate on her 1973 vanishing -- applying thick layers of theory and getting it all wrong. (Like everyone else in the play, they are experts at performing versions of themselves.) The focus of the session is the video of her last public appearance -- acted out live onstage -- on a television talk show. Vera, her film career having long since expired, shows up to plug a Vegas revue for which she has been pulled out of enforced retirement. A bitter alcoholic, she is also hilariously determined to speak her mind. The broadcast all but jumps the rails when Gloria -- now a wealthy London matron, yearning for a comeback -- makes a surprise appearance.

Taking a distanced approach to its characters and switching up, halfway through, from farce to a cooler, more cerebral satire, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark may not be for lovers of more conventional comedies: Its humor may be too barbed, its skepticism too all-embracing. Nevertheless, Lynn Nottage's dramatic hall of mirrors glitters with multiple images of black women in the guises assigned to them by the dominant culture; it amuses and dismays in equal measure. The play also functions as a kind of memorial to the many performers, from Hattie McDaniel to Nina Mae McKinney, who found steady work in Hollywood enacting a series of stereotypes until the world moved on, leaving them forgotten and scorned.

This revival isn't as fluent as Jo Bonney's 2011 staging; the director, Kamilah Forbes, allows the cast to play too broadly in the early scenes. This is especially a problem with Jenni Barber's Gloria, who rattles her lines at such a rate that it's nearly impossible to make her out. Things improve enormously as the play goes on, however, with the cast markedly more at home in the second act. And everyone has his or her moments. Jessica Francis Dukes' Vera is all sass and sarcasm, displaying a gift for physical comedy when, trying to please Von Oster, she staggers around, acting the part of a downtrodden darkie. Dukes is all but unrecognizable when she returns in Act II, visibly harrowed by time, clutching a martini, vocalizing in a manner best described as Mabel Mercer meets Shirley Horn, and making clear that her outspokenness and proximity to scandal robbed her of a career. Barber takes a couple of scenes to find her footing, but she shines as the older Gloria, now the excruciatingly affected wife of a symphony conductor, complete with faux British accent.

In the lively supporting cast, Heather Alicia Simms scores as Lottie, who is willing to play any sort of mammy role if it lands her in the movies, and as colloquium commentator Carmen Levy-Green, who clearly thinks everyone else on her panel is out of their minds. Carra Patterson comes on a little too strong in her early scenes as Anna Mae, but is a riot as Afua Assata Ejobo, a lesbian feminist with a heroic myth for every occasion. Warner Miller offers strikingly different characterizations as Leroy, the gifted musician (and chauffeur for Von Osten), whose life is destroyed by a single rash act, and as Herb, the panel's moderator, who is a bit of a poseur himself. David Turner is fun as an ulcerated producer (told that The Belle is set in a brothel, he says, "Yes, but that doesn't mean they have to be whores") and a Dick Cavett-type host. The same goes for Manoel Felciano as Von Osten, a junior Sergei Eisenstein, ready for "cinema to take a bold new leap," and a strung-out British rock star who thinks he is Vera's soul brother.

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark requires an elaborate production, and Forbes' design team has delivered the goods. The turntable on Clint Ramos' set rotates to reveal Gloria's gold-and-white Deco living room, the Craftsman-style apartment rented by Vera and Lottie, the exterior of a Hollywood soundstage, and a tinselly, brightly colored talk show set. (Ramos' show curtain, with matching profile shots of Vera, impressively sets the tone before the play begins.) Matt Frey's lighting treats each of these with care, supplying many subtle cues and flourishes as needed. Dede M. Ayite provides period-perfect costumes for all three time frames: Gloria's wardrobe is a succession of stunners, and the 1973 outfits are just as awful as you remember. (Mia Neal's hair designs, especially all the marcelled coiffures seen in the 1933 scenes, make a fine complement to Ayite's clothing.) Mikaal Sulaiman's sound design provides fine reinforcement for Daniel Kluger's original 1930s-style music. Most crucial are Katherine Freer's projections, especially in the lengthy sequence from The Belle of New Orleans, which reveals the film to be both ridiculous and entrancing. Freer also provides a climactic montage of famous black women's faces that brings us up, disconcertingly, to today. For my money, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark remains a knockout, an inventive work that sheathes some very provocative ideas in a riotous package. Is there anything Lynn Nottage can't do? -- David Barbour

(1 March 2019)

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