Playwrights might take to heart Lynn Nottage’s solution for alleviating the performance anxiety that inevitably comes with winning a Pulitzer Prize — write a comedy. “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” won’t conquer the world the way “Ruined” did after picking up the Pulitzer (and every other significant award) in 2009. But this cheeky Hollywood bio-dram, about the demeaning career options for black actresses going back to the 1930s, smartly showcases scribe’s comic gifts, especially her zest for satire. More’s the pity, then, that she lets her political anger run amok in the second act and loses her dramatic focus.
Act One soars on the originality of Nottage’s comic vision of how the Hollywood dream factory has always relegated actresses to the kind of stereotypical feminine roles that don’t sexually threaten men or challenge their belief in their own gender superiority.
In a broad but earnestly funny perf, Stephanie J. Block plays the movie starlet Gloria Mitchell as if her life depended on how winsomely she can toss her pretty curls. Gloria’s career is surely in peril if this aging ingenue fails to win the role of the doomed octoroon heroine in “The Belle of New Orleans.” So when the play opens in 1933, on set designer Neil Patel’s sugary candy box of a movie star’s boudoir, “America’s Sweetie Pie” is slugging down gin and anxiously running lines with her maid in preparation for her critical audition.
Gloria’s smart and beautiful African-American maid, Vera Stark (Sanaa Lathan, in a drop-dead perf), also has acting ambitions. But as a woman of color, Vera’s options are even narrower. She can play a house slave in this antebellum Southern epic, or … well, that’s about it.
But where Gloria is desperate, Vera is resourceful, as are the two would-be actresses who live in her rooming house: Lottie (a big lady with a big voice, in Kimberly Hebert Gregory’s glowing perf), who smothers her huge natural talents to play a cliched Mammy role, and Anne Mae (saucy Karen Olivo), who swaps one racially demeaning role for another by reinventing herself as a fiery senorita from Latin America.
The keen point Nottage makes of their comic compromising is that women of color had no choice but to adapt themselves to the stereotypical roles open to them — if they hoped to work at all in Hollywood. And this very funny first act ends with all four women (and the hapless director, played by Kevin Isola, who had hoped to make a realistic drama) giving the studio producer (played by David Garrison) the movie he demands: a romantic weeper with “no whores, no cotton pickin’ slaves, no misery.”
Act Two continues the theme of how demeaning role-playing costs women of color the authenticity of their identity. But Nottage doesn’t give the aud what it wants — not directly, anyway — which is more of Vera and Gloria and friends trying to outwit the system.
Instead, the scribe introduces a trio of socio-political critics of the black experience in the modern-day setting of a film forum. As these academics amusingly but fatuously pontificate on the significance of Vera Stark’s “ground-breaking” work in “The Belle of New Orleans,” the final scene of that movie is screened behind them in all its grotesque glory. (Credit Tony Gerber for the period-perfect film.)
Heavy-handed though it is, the switch to satire does bear out Nottage’s cutting point that these pompous bloviators (and feel free to name them) are locked into their own narrowly self-defined roles and playing the same old game. But the parodist style is applied with less assurance to projections (the work of Shawn Sagady) of a 1970s TV talk show in which Vera Stark shows up as an aging, drunken has-been reduced to playing Vegas club gigs. And while helmer Jo Bonney gets first-rate performances from her protean ensemble players, the coolly contemporary style of Act Two leaves us longing for the warmth and humanity that disappeared without a trace during the intermission break.