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.