Lyric Stage Company’s current offering of “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark”, by Lynn Nottage (2009 Pulitzer Prize winner for “Ruined”) is full of truths (though those truths aren’t always immediately apparent). The comedy is based on an enticing story about an aspiring black actress in Hollywood in the 30’s, her subsequent career (some forty years later), and the focus of a 2003 seminar on the impact and meaning of her professional life. Off-Broadway, it earned a 2011 Drama Desk nomination for outstanding play. It’s a great vehicle for a quartet of talented actresses, as well as a golden opportunity for creative multi-media expertise. Fortunately, the cast and crew of this production rise to the occasion. From the moment the audience enters the theater, the illusion of Vera Stark as an actual film star is cleverly illustrated with stills and clips from her supposed filmography. In this prologue, as well as in other filmed and projected interludes between scenes, Film & Media Designer Johnathan Carr and Sound Designer Edward Young are particularly outstanding.
The bumpy voyage from obscurity to fame is shared by the future Mary Pickford-like “America’s Little Sweetie Pie” Gloria Mitchell (Hannah Husband), her maid in real and reel life, Vera Stark (Kami Rushell Smith), and Vera’s friends Lottie (Lyndsay Allyn Cox) and Anna Mae (Kris Sidberry). All perceive the making of the “Gone-with-the-Wind”-like “The Belle of New Orleans” as their possible springboard to more roles, celebrity and riches. They’ll stoop to anything to capture a part in the proposed epic to be helmed by Maximillian von Oster (Gregory Balla) and produced by movie mogul Mr. Slasvick (Kelby T. Akin), even when it requires mimicking the obsequious slave caricatures that these powerful white men envision. Ironically, it’s the latter roles written by the playwright for white actors, as well as the two additional roles played by Akin and Balla (respectively, Brad, a very fatuous Merv Griffin-like television host and one of his guests, Peter, a Mick Jagger-like spaced-out rocker) that come across as stereotypes. And, if you’ve noticed a lot of “-likes” herein, it’s obvious that the intent of the playwright is to parodize a number of Hollywood clichés. Even the final seminar led by Herb (Terrell Donnell Sledge) and abetted by researcher Carmen (Cox) and political activist Afua (Sidberry) manages to prolong the parody. The four actress roles are better written, as is that of Vera’s suitor and first husband Leroy (Sledge).
Director Summer L. Williams does what she can with this imbalance of fleshed-out and cardboard characters, aided by the stylish Scenic Design of David Towlun, Costume Design Tyler Kinney and Lighting Design by Franklin Meissner, Jr. But the play’s strengths (primarily in confronting us with the historical limitations imposed upon actors of color for far too long a period) may not be enough of a payoff for some theatergoers who might be put off by several cartoon-like portrayals and scenes in need of trimming and tightening.
For those willing to put up with a number of flawed elements, there is rewarding insight into the barriers that existed then (and persist today, if truth be told, if not perhaps as blatantly). There are some hilarious lines, such as Lottie’s remark about the black roles in “Belle of New Orleans” (“Slaves with lines?”) or Gloria’s self-obsessed observations (“It’s exhausting to be this fabulous”). And there’s the fundamental truth that Vera herself reveals in her televised meltdown (“Tonight I’ve crossed the bridge, and there’s no going back”), which will come as no enormous surprise if you’ve been paying attention. This work is a window into a world too many of us chose to be oblivious to, through a glass starkly, despite the evidence right there on the silver screen. “By the way”, indeed.