×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Off Broadway Review: ‘By the Way, Meet Vera Stark’ by Lynn Nottage

The Pulitzer-winning playwright sends up Hollywood in a spiffy revival of her 2011 comedy.

With:
Jeni Barber, Jessica Frances Dukes, Manoel Felciano, Warner Miler, Carra Paterson, Heather Alicia Sims, David Turner.

2 hours 25 minutes

After writing two harrowing Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, “Sweat” and “Ruined,” Lynn Nottage is entitled to have a little fun. But while this revival of her new play, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” walks and talks like a screwball comedy, it has a real brain in its head.

Before we get too serious, let’s meet Vera Stark. When we first lay eyes on her in 1933, Vera (Jessica Frances Dukes, in a sparkling performance) is a young African-American woman trying to break into the movies. So far, her closest brush with stardom has been working as a personal maid to Gloria Mitchell (a very appealing Jeni Barber), a kewpie doll with golden curls, known to her fans as “America’s Little Sweetie Pie.”

Gloria makes her entrance draped across a poufy bed in a white-and-gold bedroom (Clint Ramos designed the deliciously vulgar set), studying the screenplay for “The Belle of New Orleans.” She’s up for the lead role of a consumptive Southern virgin in this period potboiler (“magnolias and petticoats”), and her imminent screen test is giving her palpitations.

Between slugs of gin, Gloria runs lines with Vera, her maid, who looks trim in one of those starchy black-and-white servant getups that African-American actors inevitably found themselves wearing in films of the period. When she isn’t picking up the lines that America’s Little Sweetie Pie keeps dropping, Vera entreats Gloria to get her an audition for “The Belle of New Orleans.” There’s a role in it — a real role — for a black actress and Vera is determined to grab it.

Back home in the rooming house where Vera lives with other black actresses who are holding down day jobs while struggling to break into the movies, Nottage switches styles from screwball comedy to backstage realism, and director Kamilah Forbes effortlessly keeps in step. The comedy is still plenty tasty, but the style is much more cutting as Vera’s earthy roommate Lottie McBride (Heather Alicia Simms, great with gags) bemoans the limited roles open to actors of color — unless, like their other roommate Anna Mae Simpkins (Carra Patterson, classy), they can pass for white.

Lottie speaks from a lifetime of anger and hurt, detailing the realities that thinking people think they already know; but hearing them through Nottage’s strong dialogue and in Simms’s powerful voice is a real punch in the gut. Nonetheless, Vera persists, thinking that “maybe, just maybe, times was ready to change.” And if not for everyone, at least for Vera, who has what it takes — brains, talent, persistence, and something else that can’t quite be measured. As one admirer puts it: “You got yourself some spirit.”

After rounding up all the characters, including some we haven’t met yet, the first act ends on a note of high comedy. But the second act, trimmed and tightened after the original production at Second Stage, retains its jarring shift in style. Although Katherine Freer has come up with some very funny black-and-white projections that let us know what happened with “The Belle of New Orleans,” scenes set in 1973 and 2003 are a downer.

Instead of giving us more of what we want — which is more of Vera and her friends trying to outwit the Hollywood system of burying African-American actors in demeaning roles — Nottage introduces a trio of socio-political critics 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 hilariously grotesque glory.

This switch to satire bears out Nottage’s cutting point that these pompous talking heads are locked into their own narrowly self-defined racial roles. But these one-dimensional parodies are too mean and obvious to offer either intellectual enlightenment or belly laughs. Boo to the eggheads — bring back Vera!

Off Broadway Review: 'By the Way, Meet Vera Stark' by Lynn Nottage

Pershing Square Signature Center / Diamond Theater; 295 seats; $50 top. Opened Feb. 19, 2019; reviewed Feb. 14. Running time: TWO HOURS, 25 MIN.

Production: A Signature Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Lynn Nottage, commissioned and developed by South Coast Repertory and Center Stage, and originally produced by Second Stage Theater.

Creative: Directed by Kamilah Forbes. Sets, Clint Ramos; costumes, Dede M. Ayite, lighting, Matt Frey; sound, Mikal Sulaiman; projections, Katherine Freer; hair & wigs, Mia Neal; composer, Daniel Kluger; production stage manager, Laura Wilson.

Cast: Jeni Barber, Jessica Frances Dukes, Manoel Felciano, Warner Miler, Carra Paterson, Heather Alicia Sims, David Turner.

More Legit

  • Jeff Daniels Variety Broadway to Kill

    How 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Beat the Odds to Deliver a Broadway Smash

    Jeff Daniels slumps into a chair in the Shubert Theatre, grasping an oversize Starbucks and looking bone-crushingly exhausted. His eyelids are heavy, and he seems like a man in desperate need of rest. It’s easy to understand why. It’s late March, and Daniels has just given his 100th Broadway performance as Atticus Finch, the small-town attorney [...]

  • ZZ Top, Caesars Entertainment Team on

    ZZ Top, Caesars Team for Jukebox Musical 'Sharp Dressed Man' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees ZZ Top and Caesars Entertainment are developing “Sharp Dressed Man,” a jukebox musical set to open next year in Las Vegas featuring the band’s greatest hits. Members Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard are all serving as executive producers. “Sharp Dressed Man” is described as an “outrageous, [...]

  • Williamstown Theater Festival 2016 season

    Marisa Tomei Starring in Broadway Revival of 'The Rose Tattoo'

    Marisa Tomei will star in the Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo.” The Oscar-winning actress will play Serafina, a part previously performed by the likes of Maureen Stapleton and Anna Magnani. It’s also a role that Tomei is familiar with, having starred in a Williamstown Theatre Festival production in 2016. “The Rose Tattoo” [...]

  • White Pearl review

    London Theater Review: 'White Pearl'

    Playwright Anchuli Felicia King dismantles the Asian market in this misfiring satire at London’s Royal Court Theatre. “White Pearl” makes a case that those seeking to make inroads into the Far East, perceiving a new El Dorado, are no better that colonial conquistadors of an earlier age — and entirely unequipped to understand the specifics [...]

  • Signature Theatre Celebrates Millionth Subsidized Ticket

    Signature Theatre Offers $35 Subsidized Tickets, Celebrates Millionth Sold

    Just the other night, a Manhattan cab driver told Signature Theatre executive director Harold Wolpert that he couldn’t afford to take his girlfriend to a show. In response, Wolpert motioned to his theater, saying that they offer $35 subsidized tickets. The driver said he’d try it out. “It was a great moment,” Wolpert said. “We’re [...]

  • SOCRATES The Public Theater

    Tim Blake Nelson Waxes Philosophical on Writing a Play About Socrates

    Despite Tim Blake Nelson’s knack for playing folksy characters in films such as “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” in his soul lurks the heart of a classicist. Nelson, who stars in HBO’s “Watchmen” series this fall, has also penned the play “Socrates,” now running at New York’s Public Theater through June 2. Doug Hughes directs, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content