Thursday, April 28, 2011


By the way, you ought to meet Vera Stark. You can, in the highly entertaining new play at Second Stage Theatre, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.” Now in previews, “Vera Stark” is directed by Jo Bonney and written by the accomplished Lynn Nottage, a MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize winner for the 2009 play, “Ruined.”

“Vera Stark” involves racism in Hollywood over a 70-year period -- 1933 to 2003.  In the thirties, black actors were relegated to only the most menial roles in movies.  But Vera Stark was not satisfied with her debut role as a maid in “The Belle of New Orleans.” And therein lies the starting point of the play.  Without giving anything away, during the succeeding decades Vera’s roles, and Vera herself, change radically.

Now it’s probably true that you didn’t wake up this morning and say to yourself, “Tonight I’d really like to go see a play about racism.” But you should have, because “Vera Stark” manages to take a serious subject and, through wonderful writing, acting, direction and set design, transform it into a funny and rewarding experience.

The seven actors, playing a dozen roles, are uniformly engaging. And the abrupt change in the tenor of the play from Act I to Act II is as startling as that in “Sunday in the Park with George.” Nottage’s writing is impressive – examples that stick with me are a flirting scene that’s perfectly executed, a hilarious put-down of academic pontificators on talk shows, and a movie-within-the play that could stand on its own.
Vera Stark and her first husband, Larry Barksdale
Not least of the attractions is the intimacy of watching marvelous talents in a 299-seat theater. Should “Vera” eventually move to Broadway, and it well may, let’s hope it doesn’t lose its impact by playing in a much larger house.

After you’ve seen the show, watch the following quasi-serious eight-minute video by Herb Forrester, who’s created a remarkable documentary about Vera Stark. Wait a minute. A documentary? Does this mean Vera Stark is real? Was there actually a 1933 movie entitled “The Belle of New Orleans”?  Or is this a send-up of the show? Or all the above? See the show. Watch the video. Then you decide. Of course you can watch the video now, but it’ll make more sense after you’ve seen the play. By the way, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” closes May 29, so hurry.