You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark

Lynn Nottage's "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark" indicts the industry's checkered minority record while exploring our own fractured relationship with our movie memories.

Vera Stark - Sanaa Lathan
Gloria Mitchell - Amanda Detmer
Leroy Barksdale - Kevin T. Carroll

The historical indignities suffered by performers of color are legion. Especially in act two, Lynn Nottage’s “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” indicts the industry’s checkered minority record while exploring our own fractured relationship with our movie memories. The evening at the Geffen is overall something of a mess, but at least it’s always stylish and never dull.

In 1933, every aspiring thesp in town hungers for the forthcoming antebellum epic “The Belle of New Orleans.” And yes, we’re indeed meant to think “Gone with the Wind” as long suffering maid Vera (a sizzling Sanaa Lathan) helps wine and dine Hollywood bigshots to win the Scarlett O’Hara-ish lead for fading star Gloria Mitchell (Amanda Detmer).

Meanwhile, Vera and two roommates are set on nabbing that studio rarity, roles for “slaves with lines!” Lottie (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) breaks into “Go Down, Moses” on cue, while Anna Mae (Merle Dandridge) romances the director (Mather Zickel) by passing as a Brazilian bombshell. They, no less than Vera, will do or say anything for that big break, a very human dilemma but the fracas is flat. It all plays out like “My Man Godfrey” minus good jokes and urgent need.

The antics at Gloria’s Hollywood party are painfully insipid, helmer Jo Bonney there and elsewhere milking comic mileage from the very racial stereotypes Nottage decries. On-the-make musician Kevin T. Carroll is a cool smoothie but the women are all handled cheaply; Detmer in particular is indistinguishable from how Carol Burnett would tackle a washed-up, bibulous “America’s little sweetie-pie.” Not to take anything away from Burnett, but “Vera” doesn’t seem comfortable as sketch comedy.

Nottage and Bonney seem to lack much appreciation of, or respect for, the Tinseltown milieu. Smug campiness certainly damages the extended “Belle” clip that opens act two. Though it’s cleverly contrived by filmmaker Tony Gerber, the Geffen audience hoots at it and rightly so: No way this swill could endure as the deathless American classic it’s proclaimed as being.

The second half nevertheless proves richer and more satisfying. For starters three academics, hilariously doubled by Carroll, Gregory and Dandridge, practically come to blows at a modern-day seminar on the meaning of a career that ended in lousy roles, humiliation and eventual disappearance.

Each pundit’s effort to “own” Vera’s legacy – she’s a rebel! A subversive! A fraud!, they exclaim in turn – exposes the impossibility of pinning down an iconic figure like a butterfly in a display case. Human beings, even movie goddesses, are too elusive and contradictory to reduce to just one thing.

Our species is also ambivalent about its past, as illustrated by the expertly staged “found footage” of Vera and Gloria guesting on a Merv Griffin-like talkfest circa 1973, the ladies unwilling to pick at old scabs yet unable to let them lie.

All the pieces of Nottage’s puzzle never quite click together, and it’s rather ironic for a work whose theme is personal and professional authenticity to keep bringing in so much that’s downright bogus.

But when “By the Way” is most real – in Lathan and Detmer’s simmering TV reunion; in Carroll’s latter-day filmed interview as Vera’s lost love; in designer ESosa’s hilariously appropriate 1970s vintage outfits – it sparks thematic and emotional connections which almost make up for the earlier phoniness.

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark

Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles; 522 seats; $75 top

Production: A Geffen Playhouse presentation of the Second Stage Theater production of a play in two acts by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Jo Bonney.

Creative: Sets, Neil Patel; costumes, ESosa; lighting, Jeff Croiter; sound, John Gromada; projections, Shawn Sagady; film sequence, Tony Gerber; production stage manager, Mary Michele Miner. Opened, reviewed Sept. 26, 2012. Runs through Oct. 28. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast: Vera Stark - Sanaa Lathan
Gloria Mitchell - Amanda Detmer
Leroy Barksdale - Kevin T. Carroll
With: Merle Dandridge, Spencer Garrett, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Mather Zickel.

More Legit

  • CAROL CHANNING HERSCHFELD. Actress Carol Channing

    Remembering Carol Channing: A Master of Channeling the Power of Personality

    There was only one Carol Channing, and her outsize personality was a source of delight to many fans — and imitators. Gerard Alessandrini’s stage spoof “Forbidden Broadway” had many incarnations over the years, including the 1994 edition when an audience member was selected every evening to come onstage and impersonate Carol Channing with the cast. [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda Among Celebrities Remembering Carol Channing

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Bernadette Peters are among the slew of celebrities taking to Twitter to pay tribute to late singer, comedienne and actress Carol Channing. Known for her starring roles in Broadway’s “Hello Dolly!” and “Gentleman Prefer Blondes,” the legend of the stage and screen died Tuesday at her home in Rancho Mirage, [...]

  • What the Constitution Means to Me

    Listen: How Things Got Scary in 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

    For a decade, writer-performer Heidi Schreck had wanted to write a play inspired by her experiences as a teen debater. But over the years the show started to develop into something both urgently political and deeply personal — and things got scary. In the Broadway-bound “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Schreck reimagines her speech-and-debate [...]

  • Carol Channing Dead

    Carol Channing, Star of Broadway's 'Hello, Dolly!' and 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' Dies at 97

    Larger-than-life musical stage personality Carol Channing, who immortalized the characters of Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello, Dolly!,” has died. She was 97. Channing died Tuesday of natural causes at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Her publicist B. Harlan Boll confirmed the news. He wrote, “It is with [...]

  • 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

    'What the Constitution Means to Me' Transfers to Broadway

    “What the Constitution Means to Me,” a buzzy Off-Broadway production that counts Hillary Clinton and Gloria Steinem among its fans, is making the move uptown. The play will come to Broadway this spring for a 12-week limited run at the Helen Hayes Theater. “What the Constitution Means to Me” is one part civics lesson, one [...]

  • Choir Boy review

    Broadway Review: 'Choir Boy'

    Honestly, I was afraid that “Choir Boy” — the sweetly exuberant account of a gifted prep school boy’s coming of age, written by “Moonlight” Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney — would be swallowed up in a Broadway house, after winning us over in an Off Broadway staging in 2013.  But aside from the odd set [...]

  • Jason Robert Brown

    Listen: How Ariana Grande Got Jason Robert Brown to Madison Square Garden

    Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown never expected to find himself performing onstage at Madison Square Garden. But he did — thanks to his pal Ariana Grande. Brown met Grande before she was a superstar, when she was in the 2008 Broadway cast of his teen musical “13.” The two have kept in touch ever since [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content