27 May 2011

'By The Way, Meet Vera Stark'

Last Thursday, 19 May, my theater companion, Diana, and I went uptown to the Second Stage Theatre’s home on West 43rd Street to see the highly-praised production of Lynn Nottage’s comedy-drama By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, a world première (Nottage’s last New York production, and her last play, was Ruined, the Pulitzer Prize winner for 2009, at the Manhattan Theatre Club.) For the first time in a long time, I can’t argue with the acclaim the play and the production have garnered in the press. (And, for the first time in a long time, Diana and I agreed!) If I taught playwriting—for which I have no qualifications, so it’s unlikely—Vera Stark would be one of the models I’d promote in class. It’s a perfect example of top-flight dramaturgy (helped immensely by an all-around excellent production, which I’ll get to shortly). Here’s what I mean:

As readers of ROT will know by now, I have a short set of criteria for what I consider good theater. A good play has to do something more than just tell a story and it must do it theatrically. The first part’s probably self-explanatory, but all I mean there is that the play has to have a point of some kind, say something, profound or trivial. Storytelling’s a noble art of its own, but in itself, it’s not theater. As for theatricality, what I mean is the play must use the attributes of the live stage to accomplish its task. I don’t want a play to try to replicate a movie, a TV show, or a concert, though it can use the techniques of those arts; I want a play to be a play, live and, when necessary, overcoming that limitation by imaginative means. Nottage’s play and Jo Bonney’s staging do both of those things in spades.

In the first instance, Nottage, a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (the “genius” grant), is showing us the Hollywood of the 1930s, especially the place of black actors in that world. (A subtitle for this report might be “Slaves With Lines”; that’s the exclamation the would-be African-American actors at the center of Vera Stark utter when they learn that a Southern epic, The Belle of New Orleans, is being cast.) We may know about the tribulations of now-famous actors like Butterfly McQueen, Stepin Fetchit, Hattie McDaniel, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Louise Beavers, and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, who, like the black characters in Vera Stark, have, and often demonstrate, more dignity and depth than the roles to which they were assigned (on screen, but also in life) allowed them to reveal. But Nottage also shows us what it was like off the sound stages. Later, we see the playwright’s take on how we mythologize those groundbreakers after they’ve become icons. Nottage says that, fascinated with old Hollywood, she wanted to look at where she thought the movie business was heading in terms of race relations before the Hays Code was enforced in 1934, the year after the fictional Belle of New Orleans was made. The Motion Picture Production Code, as it was officially known, changed the way African Americans were (permitted to be) portrayed on screen, condemning black actors to careers as “enthusiastic and obsequious servants.” The playwright said that her intent was “to use the fast-paced humor of the period to irreverently explore the legacy of racism in Hollywood”—and, by extension I’d say, the rest of our society (especially the non-Jim Crow North with its less-blatant discrimination). By displaying the past, Nottage hopes that we’ll examine our present in comparison. She doesn’t think all that much has changed, for all the successful black filmmakers like Spike Jones and Tyler Perry, especially in the way African-American women are portrayed on film and TV.

But what makes this treatment of our history (and the subsequent rose-colored nostalgia) stageworthy is that Nottage doesn’t just tell us or even simply illustrate her ideas, she demonstrates them for us, and she does it with great (and I do mean great) humor. The first act, set in 1933, is a true laugh-riot—chockablock with jokes, gags, and comic turns, often in the low-comedy mold, but all for a serious and honest point, which Nottage never lets get away or treats trivially even as the audience howls with glee. (A couple of women behind Diana and me seemed even to anticipate the jokes before they arrived, almost as if they’d seen the play before and knew what was coming. Their joy was contagious, but it made it hard for me to catch some of the funny lines because the women were already laughing loudly. That’s the breaks, though.) Nottage said that she wanted to “pay homage to the screwball comedies of the 30’s” which she “adored.” Vera Stark’s second act moves up to 2003 as we attend “Rediscovering Vera Stark,” a conference on the actress and the movie that made her famous and beloved. We also visit, via live reenactment, 1973, when Vera made an appearance on The Brad Donovan Show, a kind of Mike Douglas or Merv Griffin celebrity talk show. The self-important panelists at the conference—a lesbian slam poet in combat boots and camouflage field jacket; a somewhat pedantic academic; and the host, a fey, prissy film geek—parse Vera’s every comment and gesture, each to support her or his private theories. For two simultaneous scenes in which the characters are all mostly sitting around and talking, it was remarkably dynamic and engaging.

That last attribute was, of course, in large part thanks to the acting and directing. Let me get to that. First, the production couldn’t have been cast better. No one hit a single false note or faltered—and most of the actors played two roles (except the two playing Vera and Gloria Mitchell, the Hollywood star who had the title role in The Belle of New Orleans and employed Vera as her real-life maid—who served as Gloria’s best friend and confidante), and each of them created two delightful figures, portraits of recognizable types who nevertheless never descended into stereotypes or clichés. (They were, however, caricatures, but the good kind—the kind that makes you recognize people and laugh at them.) I’ll get back to the acting shortly, but let me cover some of the other aspects of the production that helped raise it above the norm, despite the opportunity to turn it all into a travesty of one of those “where are they now?” or “whatever happened to . . .?” TV bios that cram the cable dial. (When Gloria shows up at the Brad Donovan interview, it was reminiscent of that oldie, This Is Your Life.)

Before I return to the acting, I have to cover the physical production (which is actually quite complex technically). Neil Patel, one of our most accomplished stage designers, especially for realistic or semi-realistic sets, realized a wonderfully evocative fantasy-‘30s environment for act one. To start the performance off on the right note and prepare the audience for the world we’d be entering, Patel designed a false proscenium arch for the stage, embellishing the frame with an art deco border and installing a purple velvet drape that rose in scalloped swooshes when the play opened. For the moment, the normally high-tech, metal-clad Second Stage theater became a depression-era playhouse. The centerpiece—of the whole play, really, but especially of the first act—was the salon/sitting room of the Hollywood home of Gloria Mitchell, “America’s Little Sweetie Pie.” (The Shirley Temple allusion is almost certainly intentional, considering the little moppet’s screen relationship with Bill Robinson.) It was all cream and white, with a plushly upholstered chaise in the center—not a real living space, but one that might have appeared in one of the movies of the era, like The Thin Man or My Man Godfrey. The contrast this set up from the first scene in the salon to the second in the shabby apartment Vera shares with Lottie and Anne Mae, two other aspiring actresses, was striking, the little flat being all greens and browns and sparsely furnished. Even the studio lot was really a kind of fantasy, with the prop palm tree, wooden stand in plain view, and the studio floor lamp on casters standing idle (as if a piece of electric equipment might be left out in the elements). All that was missing was a Godzilla or a gladiator walking through. The effect of it all was subtle and sly, a commentary that didn’t call attention to itself but communicated nonetheless.

The design of the second act, which combined the conference stage on the left, just three nondescript chairs as if the session were taking place in a Y or a community center, and the TV set on the right, slightly above the conference panel, far more colorful in the ‘70s style of pop psychedelia. The technical complexity came from the backing of the two sets—a large screen that doubled as a movie screen where we see the final moment, the death scene, from The Belle of New Orleans, a black-and-white melodrama (created by Tony Gerber) in the vein of, say Raintree County or Jezebel, and a TV monitor on which we were supposed to be watching the tape of The Brad Donovan Show. (The TV show is performed live for us, but when the tape is “stopped” so the conference panelists can discuss some small point, the screen displayed a frozen moment of the show as the live actors struck and held the same pose. It was a clever little gimmick, as designed by Shawn Sagady, and I imagine not too easy to accomplish smoothly.) So, we have the live medium of the stage along with evocations of both film and television; there were also some still photos projected on the screen as the panelists touch on some of Vera’s private life off the screen. Some of this may sound gimmicky, but it all worked—and in such an innately static act, it added the illusion of movement—while still being theatrical. (See what I mean? If someone had done such a scene in a film, it would have just been real, not intriguing or interesting, just plain real—a movie within a movie and a TV show in a movie. This was not real, but it was genuine nonetheless.

The costumes, by ESosa (for Emilio Sosa), were just as appropriate as the sets, and like the sets, the most impressive (and delightful) were the ‘30s designs of the first act. Starlet Gloria’s gowns were stunning, and bore the same slightly fantasy gloss as did Patel’s first-act sets. Vera and her friends also wear clothes that, though they may be less glamorous, are still part movie dream and part reality. (Anne Mae’s dress in her first scene, when she’s getting ready for a date, is especially evocative. She’s getting by by passing herself off as a Brazilian exotic, and the frilly, layered skirt has just a touch of Carmen Miranda—without gaudy colors or the bananas on her head.) In act two, the costumes become more grounded, though their evocation of character is just as strong—the aggressive poet’s combat motif, for example. The one stand-out exception is Vera’s costume—and Vera, the character, is wearing a costume—for the Brad Donovan interview. A little drunk and 40 years older than she was in act one, Vera totters onto the talk show set in a pink-and-green-and-yellow-and-God-knows-what-all caftan-cum-muumuu (with matching headband) which flutters pretty much on its own, though Vera gives it a lot of help. If the woman weren’t the center of attention on her own, that get-up would have done the trick! Like the set design, Sosa commented on the characters and the circumstances without being blunt about it.

Now, to the acting. I don’t remember seeing a play in quite some time in which the entire ensemble was all working on the same level as consistently as this one. We hadn’t gotten farther than the second and third scenes when Diana and I were whispering to each other how good the actors were. (It started with the appearance of Lottie, played by a remarkable Kimberly Hébert Gregory—who returned as Carmen Levy-Green, the academic in the act two conference.) Though Sanaa Lathan as Vera gives a stunning and flawless performance, as strong and determined as she is emotionally vulnerable—and her turn on the talk show as a kind of Eartha Kitt on speed is priceless—her castmates each give her a solid and engaging base to work from. (I can only assume that Nottage chose the title character’s name on purpose: Vera means ‘true’ in Latin and Italian and Stark means ‘strong’ in German. Vera’s a woman who’s true and strong.) I should refine a remark I made earlier while discussing the writing: the characters may be intentional caricatures of types we’ve all seen often, but the performances are not clichéd or stock. Gloria, the sweetie pie starlet, may be written so that she could be played as a stereotype, but Stephanie J. Block’s rendition is genuine and sympathetic. The affection she shows for Vera as her friend—who happens to be her maid—and support is real and her angst over the role of the New Orleans belle is almost frightening. Between the actors, the director, and the playwright, all the characters are rendered with just the right recipe of parody, sincerity, and sympathy. In this cast of standouts, some that had very special moments were Daniel Breaker as Leroy Barksdale, the film director’s “man Friday” in act one, and Kevin Isola as a British rocker with a Dr. Pangloss coiffure, in the second act talk show. Breaker, who also plays the conference host (a blend of Gene Shalit and Cornel West, The Hollywood Reporter described him), makes the smarmy self-promoter with genuine ambitions an engaging and charming man (who becomes Vera’s first husband between the acts). He looks brash and aggressive—his marcelled hair is just right—but his tone is almost suppliant, as if he were saying that he truly liked Vera and really hoped she’d like him. Isola, in an altogether different vein, was a demanding and insistent Russian-émigré movie director, but his turn at Rhys-Davies (shades of the Profumo sex-for-info scandal in ‘60s Britain!) was part strutting Mick Jagger and part lizard-tongued Gene Simmons. Lathan’s talk-show turn as Vera is a showstopper, but she and Gregory have an inspired moment in act one when they transform themselves before our very eyes from self-possessed servers at a Hollywood party into hunched, downtrodden “Negroes of the earth” and then launch into a blues number to convice director Maximilian Von Oster they should play slaves in The Belle of New Orleans. (Sincerity? Yeah, I can fake that!) This isn’t fair, I know, because all the others had terrific moments, too—David Garrison as producer Frederick Slasvick and TV host Donovan and Karen Olivo as Anne Mae and the lesbian poet—but Breaker and Isola just had a couple of marvelous scenes, thanks to Nottage and Bonney. One impressive aspect of this work, as I suggested before, is that all the actors who played two roles not only differentiated between them, as any competent actor could do, but created two perfectly apt and well-defined characters—an accomplishment for which I give great credit to Bonney along with the actors. (It’s also important to note that Nottage did a wonderful job of separating the period sensitivities and outlooks, down to the vocabulary, among the three decades—like role-players in historical reconstructions.)

Most reviews of the New York world première production of Vera Stark were extremely positive, especially about the first act, though Ben Brantley of the New York Times had reservations, calling it a “fitful comedy” and asserting that the broad humor and the “grittier emotional detail” never quite mesh. In The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney describes Vera Stark as “clever yet frustrating” and writes that it takes “an unsatisfying turn” when the second act moves into the 21st century and the play “deflates.” Rooney also had trouble reconciling the cartoonish humor of the screwball send-up and the analysis. Variety had similar criticisms. I disagree with these cavils. Nottage got the tone right for both her spoof of ‘30s film comedy and for the serious point she made through the humor and ridicule. (Isn’t that a time-honored literary tradition—to poke fun while making serious observations? Some guy named Swift did it—and Twain, just to mention two. Not a few dramatists, too, like Molière and Shaw—or, more currently, Yasmina Reza.)

The apparent disconnect, as Michael Feingold has it in The Village Voice, between act one and act two, when the style changes some, didn’t pull me up—all three scenes (the 1933 Hollywood, the 1973 talk show, the 2003 academic conference) were all satires, filtered through the sensibility of each era. What reviewers like Rooney seem to have missed is that Nottage isn’t just sending up the Hollywood of the ‘30s or examining the lives on the African-American actors trying to navigate the gated world. In the second part of the play, she’s looking critically at the way we turn flawed people into legends and use them as vessels for our own aspirations and agendas. That’s what Brad Donovan and Peter Rhys-Davies do in 1973 and the three conference panelists do in 2003—and Nottage is showing us how we all do it. Vera may be little more than a washed up drunk pretending she’s still 25, but we project onto her a whole wealth of fun-house nostalgia because we need her to have been a hero so we can stand on her shoulders. The first act of Vera Stark isn’t just a funny send-up of screwball depression Hollywood. It’s the material on which act two comments, like the commentary in the Talmud or the critical analysis that follows and draws on a piece of literature. The two parts of Vera Stark aren’t discontinuous; they fit together like two halves of a torn photograph. Besides, what saved even the frisson of discontinuity from splitting the play, is the way Nottage got her critical intent across by means of the jokes and parody not around or in spite of them. “Clever” is something of a put-down; By The Way, Meet Vera Stark is far more than merely clever. It has something to say, and it does so very successfully as far as I’m concerned—anything to the contrary is just bitchin’ and moanin’.

1 comment:

  1. The 2012 Lucille Lortel Awards for “outstanding achievement Off-Broadway” were announced on Sunday, 6 May. "By The Way, Meet Vera Stark" won in two categories: Sanaa Lathan for Outstanding Lead Actress and ESosa for Outstanding Costume Design. The production also received nominations for other Lortel Awards.

    ~Rick

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