Thursday, May 26, 2011

BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK • Second Stage Theatre


I love New York.  Particularly the area of Manhattan that falls within 7th and 9th Avenues between 40th and 54th, roughly.  Theatre District, baby!  That's why I've been coming here for the last 6 or so years and I'm grateful for the ability to do it.  That being said, this latest play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Lynn Nottage, was first up on the list.

Inspired by the struggles of actresses like Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen, MEET VERA STARK takes a look at film industry racism, but it does so in some fairly hilarious and unexpected ways.  With many black actresses of 1930's Hollywood being confined to playing the maid or the nanny, Nottage follows her fictitious title character's climb up the Hollywood food chain to modest celebrity through to the 1970's.

Stephanie J. Block (Gloria Mitchell)
and Sanaa Lathan (Vera Stark).
Photo by Joan Marcus
All rights reserved by secondstagenyc
As the curtain rises on a plush living room, there's an absurdly melodramatic scene going on between Gloria Mitchell, (Stephanie J. Block) and her maid, Vera Stark (Sanaa Lathan).  After a few minutes, you become aware of the fact that Gloria is desperately trying to prepare for a screen test, and Vera is helping her with her lines.  See, there's this Southern epic film in the works called, "The Belle of New Orleans", and Gloria, a film star known as "America's Little Sweetie Pie", is determined to land the title role, lest her stardom quickly fade out.  Vera, her real-life maid, learns that there's also a juicy part that would be perfect for her own aspirations, if only the self-absorbed Gloria would put in a good word.  These two were childhood friends, and although the mistress/maid dynamic is never far from the surface, their honest back-and-forth with each other makes it obvious they are really very close -- there's a kinship there.  A kinship that's hinted at in that first scene.

Kimberly Hébert Gregory (Lottie)
and Sanaa Lathan (Vera Stark).
Photo by Joan Marcus
All rights reserved by secondstagenyc
Vera spills the beans about the film to one of her roommates, Lottie (Kimberly Hébert Gregory), who used to be in the old Broadway revues.  Lottie had to "eat her way" into roles as a "healthy" mammy type, but becomes hopeful about her own prospects for a piece of this pie.  Old New Orleans?  With cotton picking and slaves?  Slaves with lines?!?  She's in.  Then there's the other roommate Anne Mae (Karen Olivo), a light-skinned black actress who is bent on passing herself off as Brazilian to try to catch a break.

The definition of farce happens when Gloria throws a dinner party.  The attendees include Vera, of course, but also Lottie, as some additional hired help, the big time studio producer Fredrick Slasvick (David Garrison), director Maximillian Von Oster (Kevin Isola), with Anne Mae, still pretending to be from South America as his date, and Leroy Barksdale (Daniel Breaker), a jazz musician with a little thing for Vera.  While Gloria is taking huge swigs of gin to try to keep it together, the director explains that he wants realism in his film, and as he describes the tragic negro plight he envisions, Vera and Lottie's shoulders become slumped, their speech pattern shifts, and they carry out an impromptu audition right there in Gloria's living room.  This is an incredibly funny scene -- hard to know where to look, because everyone's reaction to this development is so comical.

Karen Olivo (Anna Mae) and David Garrison (Slasvick/Brad).
Photo by Joan Marcus
All rights reserved by secondstagenyc
The second act takes a more serious (but still funny) look at stereotypes in popular culture beginning with a showing of the last few minutes of the realized film, "The Belle of New Orleans", complete with appearances by Gloria, Vera, Lottie and Anne Mae.  Very clever, but as we realize that this film showing is part of a 2003 panel discussion on Vera Stark, her disappearance from the scene and African-American film history, the play starts to drag a little.  This panel discussion also includes a re-created segment from a popular talk show from the 70's in which Vera and Gloria are guests.  The panel consists of an intellectual film geek, a lesbian slam poet, and a college professor.  While these scenes take a closer look into the life of Vera and issues of racism, although it's cool, it's also a little uneven to me.  The first act is so screwball comedy that the attempt to answer deeper questions with these three academic types, "playing and pausing" the last television interview with Vera -- it didn't quite gel.  But, whatever.  I'm in New York dude, and I still loved it.

Stephanie J. Block (Gloria Mitchell)
and Sanaa Lathan (Vera Stark).
Photo by Joan Marcus
All rights reserved by secondstagenyc
Can I talk about Broadway Crush #1, Stephanie J. Block for a minute?  Please and thank you.

I've seen her in a few things now, everything from WICKED (which she should have opened in NYC but I won't get into that right now…) to the rather unfortunate PIRATE QUEEN to 9 TO 5 and even CATS at the Muny.  It was wonderful to see her finally show off her comedic chops.  She was great in this role and it was hard to take your eyes off of her.  Okay, my eyes.  She does overly dramatic diva really well.  And yes,  I talked with her after the show.  I'll get to that in a minute.

The real star of the show though was Sanaa Lathan in the title role.  Watching her go from a spunky ambitious actress in the first act to a contemptuous drunken shadow of her former self in the second was a marvel.  The rest of the cast was top-notch, especially Kimberly Hébert Gregory as Lottie.  The set transformations were smooth and kept that "Hollywood vibe" thing alive with beautiful lighting (Jeff Croiter) and costumes (ESosa).

Daniel Breaker (Herb Forrester)
Photo by Joan Marcus
All rights reserved by secondstagenyc
Random stuff:
For those who have asked (I'm not making this up, somebody really asked me…) no, I did not stage-door for signatures for my Playbill nor did I take any pictures and here's why:  If you read my post about seeing WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN, you know I was sitting like 3 or 4 seats down from Stephanie J. and we chatted a bit during intermission.  I was delighted that we could have a "Hey, we're here seeing the same show" type of conversation where I didn't look stupid or anything.  Honestly, I couldn't bring myself to ask her for an autograph after something like that, right?  Now, did I wait to talk to her after the show?  Uh, have we met?  Yes I did, and I'm proud to say she remembered me again and touched my arm several times.  She's really enjoying this show too -- happy to get the chance to be really hammy in a play (that will sadly end on the 31st) even though she's kind of known as a belter.  She's so gracious…  …and beautiful... ... What was I saying? 
Oh yeah, and Quentin Tarantino was in the audience, too.  That was kinda cool.


BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK

Written by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Jo Bonney
Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 West 43rd St. New York, NY
through May 31 | tickets: $75
Performances Wednesdays, Saturdays, at 2pm & 8pm, Tuesdays at 7pm, Thursdays, Fridays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

Cast:
Stephanie J. Block (Gloria Mitchell), Daniel Breaker (Leroy Barksdale/Herb Forrester), David Garrison (Fredrick Slasvick/Brad Donovan), Kimberly Hébert Gregory (Lottie/Carmen Levy-Green), Kevin Isola (Maximillian Von Oster/Peter Rhys-Davies), Sanaa Lathan (Vera Stark) and Karen Olivo (Anne Mae/Afua Assata Ejobo).

Creative:
Scenic design by Neil Patel; costumes by ESosa; lighting by Jeff Croiter; sound by John Gromada; film by Tony Gerber; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis; projections by Shawn Sagady; production stage manager, Lori Ann Zepp.

3 comments:

  1. Wow! What an experience over all. And I'm glad you don't ask for autographs. :) Miss you! See 'ya soon.
    A1

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm glad I didn't ask for an autograph too, but honestly, I usually do if I really liked the show, and I'm in NYC. I just didn't want to go "backwards". I mean now, I can pretend that we're "acquaintances". Ha! She appreciated it though -- it was a matinee and she was trying to get outta there!
    I miss you too, A1!
    A2

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm so glad you had fun in NYC...I love theater there and miss it terribly!

    ReplyDelete

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