MSQ Review: By The Way, Meet Vera Stark – Geffen Playhouse

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I’m not a big fan of audio books; I’ve never liked being read to, even as a child.  As an adult, I like to think but I don’t like being told that I have to think or what to think. That, unfortunately, is how I felt when I saw Lynn Nottage’s play By The Way, Meet Vera Stark.

Vera Stark (Sanaa Lathan) is the maid to actress Gloria Mitchell (Amanda Detmer). When Ms. Mitchell is up for a role in the film The Belle of New Orleans, Vera, who has come to Hollywood to be an actress, does everything she can to win the part of the maid. The first act takes place completely in 1933 and leads up to the making of the film.

In the second act, we are in 2003 at a symposium looking back at Ms. Stark’s career. As part of this presentation, we see video clips from her last appearance on a 1973 talk show where she is reunited with Ms. Mitchell. The clip becomes live and is performed in fits and starts according to the needs of the symposium.

Ms. Nottage wants us to know that the industry didn’t treat African-American woman fairly. The opportunities weren’t the same. Of course, if things had improved significantly Octavia Spencer wouldn’t have won an Oscar for playing a maid in The Help. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I greatly admired the playwright’s Pulitzer Prize winning Ruined. It was audacious, challenging, and utterly compelling. Vera Stark, a lighter play, doesn’t impress in the same way. Director Jo Bonney stages the first act to feel very much like a ‘30s comedy. It doesn’t always pay off, and the humor undermines the weight of the subject matter. Particularly when Vera is in scenes with Lottie (Kimberly Hébert Gregory) and Anna Mae (Merle Dandrige), the comedy is just plain lame. 

The second act fares much better, and it is here that Ms. Lathan shines. She gives a powerful performance as an actress who has lapsed into drinking problems and whose career is in shambles–a story we’ve also seen. Costume designer ESosa also gives her an appropriately absurd early ‘70s look that helps define the both the era and Ms. Stark. Ms. Detmer is terrific in the first act, playing the overwrought actress, but isn’t as convincing as the older version of the same character in the second act.

In the moments before the play began, set designer Neil Patel’s curtain and framing of the stage, combined with music from the period, put me in the perfect mood to go back in time and experience this world. It’s too bad that Ms. Nottage felt the need to explain it all to us in a style that feels less like entertainment and more like a lecture. 

[Photo by Michael Lamont]

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