Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Ruined might have misled people into thinking her an inherently somber playwright. If so, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark (Second Stage) should serve as an excellent reminder that Nottage also shelters a laughing spirit—so much so, in fact, that she’s apparently been having too much fun at her characters’ expense to sort out and resolve her work. Vera Stark deals with matters relating to race and its imagery in America. But despite its numerous telling moments of harsh, plangent reality and tough, earthy humor, it handles its bigger issues carelessly, sometimes in ways as stereotyped as those it has such great fun ridiculing.
In 1933, Vera (Sanaa Lathan), an ex-vaudevillian, works as a lady’s maid to a glamour star, Gloria Mitchell (Stephanie J. Block), while longing to break into pictures herself, like her wannabe-actress roommates, Lottie (Kimberly Hébert Gregory) and Anne Mae (Karen Olivo), the latter of whom, light-skinned enough to “pass,” intends to sleep her way into major roles while pretending to be Latin American. Over the objections of a grouchy studio head (David Garrison), an authenticity-hungry émigré director (Kevin Isola) manages to get Vera onscreen as Gloria’s maid in a kitschy antebellum romance, launching what, four decades later, seems to have been an extensive career.
We only hear of it in retrospect, however. Act II alternates between a washed-up, alcoholic Vera’s 1973 reunion with Gloria on a TV talk show, and a 2011 forum in which three all-too-broadly satirized academic types ponder Vera’s unexplained disappearance and gush feminist-cineaste jargon over her first film, now a cult classic.
The play’s three sections seem head-scratchingly disconnected. Vera’s career-launching film, of which we see a hilarious clip, comes off as a soggy weeper that couldn’t launch a paper airplane; the allegedly lustrous career that followed gets sloughed off in a few passing remarks. One final revelation, in a last-minute flashback, explains nothing about Vera. And the producer-director fight that climaxes Act I makes you wonder how the film got made at all.
Still, that first act is full of sharply notated, funny writing, given bounce by Lathan’s sunny, subtly varicolored performance. Gregory leans heavily on her comic points, but Block, Olivo, Garrison, and Daniel Breaker as an aspiring composer lend solid support. If only, having introduced Vera Stark, Nottage had let us get to know her a little better.