Tuesday, May 31, 2011

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark ****

This time around, the prodigiously talented Lynn Nottage has written a wickedly funny, yet thought-provoking satire about the portrayal of black women in the movies. The first act, set in 1933, is a madcap comedy about the machinations that four actresses go through to get parts in the antebellum epic "Belle of New Orleans." Making fun of Hollywood is all too easy, but Nottage does it hilariously. Vera (the excellent Sanaa Lathan) is the maid and confidante of Gloria Mitchell (the deliciously hammy Stephanie J. Block), a former child actress who desperately wants the film's lead role to rescue her career. Vera and her roommate Lottie (the scene-stealing Kimberly Hebert Gregory) hope to find parts as "slaves with lines." Their light-skinned roommate Anne Mae (the exuberant Karen Olivo), posing as a Brazilian, is dating the film's director Maxmillian von Oster (Kevin Isola), actually Russian but given a German name by studio head Fredrick Slasvick (David Forrester) who is convinced that he knows best what the American public wants. Leroy Barksdale (Daniel Breaker) plays a musician working as a chauffeur who takes a shine to Vera.

For the second act, Nottage creates an unusual structure. After presenting a long clip from "Belle of New Orleans" in which all four actresses from act one are featured, the stage divides in two. On the right we are in 2003 with a panel of three bloviating panelists (Breaker, Gregory and Olivo) at a seminar on "Rediscovering Vera Stark: the Legacy of 'Belle of New Orleans'". They are watching and discussing a film clip from a 1973 talk show, the last public sighting of Vera Stark, which we see on the left. The send-up of the talk show has it all -- an unctuous host (Garrison), the obligatory androgynous British rock star guest (Isola) and a surprise guest, Gloria Mitchell, who has not seen Vera in over 25 years. Vera is now an embittered alcoholic truth-teller who bemoans the demeaning roles she was continuously offered after the great success of "Belle." Nottage pulls off the time-shifting brilliantly.

Jo Bonney's direction, Neal Patel's sets and ESosa's costumes are all excellent. The play is not perfect -- some of satire is too heavy-handed, but it is certainly one of the most original and entertaining plays of the season. The Second Stage audience loved it.

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