By the Way, Meet Vera Stark
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Theater review by Helen Shaw
Signature Theatre’s legacy seasons usually bring back plays from fairly long ago, so it feels a bit odd to see Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark less than eight years after its premiere at Second Stage. But perhaps the Signature felt this was the right moment to readjust our notion of Nottage as the queen of serious theater. With two Pulitzer Prizes—for the devastating Ruined and the progressive Sweat—the playwright has been turning into Arthur Miller in front of us. Although the Signature production often misses its step, it’s a welcome reminder that Nottage has a tricky pinball brain, capable of whanging through the decades and lighting us up with humor and rage.
The postmodern comedy starts in 1933, when Vera Stark (Jessica Frances Dukes) is working as a maid to her longtime friend Gloria Mitchell (Jenni Barber), a dizzy blonde starlet trying to land a role in Hollywood’s latest southern epic. Vera dreams of acting too, but there aren’t many roles for black performers, and she has sworn she’d never play a slave. She and her friend Lottie (Heather Alicia Simms) look at the epic’s script, realize the opportunity at hand (“These are slaves with lines!”), and—while working a gin-soaked party at Gloria’s—try to impress the film’s director. Everyone at the party is faking something: Gloria pretends to be sober, among other things; Vera’s roommate, Anna Mae (Carra Patterson), pretends to be Brazilian. But Nottage’s masterstroke is the two proud maid-slash-actresses imitating some Mitteleuropean’s idea of blackness. Their every gesture is simultaneously hilarious and galling.
The second act takes two strides forward in time. A modern-day symposium on Vera’s long Hollywood career centers on a screening of her final screen appearance, an interview on a 1973 talk show. Nottage loses the laser focus of her satirical attack in this section, partly because she whirls from target to target: panels, self-promoting academics, ‘70s entertainment, our simultaneous obsession with and victimization of alcoholic divas. A good production would accelerate along with her, but execution problems in Kamilah Forbes’s staging slow things down instead.
Farce may seem knockabout and durable, but really it’s an orchid that needs the right amount of light (laughs die in the dark) and careful handling (you can’t shout a line into being funny). There’s a science to it, but Forbes’s experience is mainly in dramas, and so the tonal balance is wonky here. Clint Ramos’s set, a spinning carousel-style series of rooms, sits quite far back from the lip of stage, and we wind up looking at the surrounding darkness. To bridge the gap between playing area and audience, Forbes elicits exaggerated performances; it often seems like the actors are playing to a nonexistent balcony.
Simms can handle it—she has a magic that works at any volume, and she seems wry and in control even when she’s going broad for a joke—and the others have their moments: Barber’s touches of dry understatement, Patterson’s second-act observational comedy. And Dukes’s Vera, best of all, settles into herself in the 1973 section. It’s a still a big performance, but we can finally see how much it takes to maintain the artifice. Fussing with her drink, lost in her mad Pucci-esque dress (Dede M. Ayite does typically incredible costume work), Dukes looks like a woman trying to find her way in a fog. She squints at the audience. Are we laughing at her? Do we love her? Do we, most awful thought of all, love her for the wrong things? She can’t figure it out, and puzzlement flickers across her face. She’s a screen on which all our ambivalence is projected.
Signature Theatre (Off Broadway). By Lynn Nottage. Directed by Kamilah Forbes. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 25mins. One intermission.