The Alliance Theatre’s season openers — the elaborate Barry Manilow-penned musical “Harmony” and the intense ensemble drama “Choir Boy” by mega-buzzworthy young playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, downstairs at the Hertz Stage — made such a big splash that it might be easy for audiences to overlook the theater’s latest, perhaps less flauntable show, Lynn Nottage’s “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” onstage through November 10. Although it may lack the flashy draw of those big kickoff productions, “Vera Stark,” though far from perfect, is a charming, funny and thought-provoking story of old Hollywood, told through the complicated lens of race in America.
In the play, we (perhaps unsurprisingly) meet Vera Stark (Toni Trucks), a pretty, feisty and funny young African-American woman working on the periphery of the Hollywood studios in the 1930s, most often as a maid to movie star Gloria Mitchell (Courtney Patterson). But the talented and driven Stark, like her roommates, has dreams of being in the movies and becoming a star herself.
Unfortunately, the most Hollywood has to offer any black actress, if she’s lucky enough to be cast, is the role of maid, mammy or slave. One of the play’s funniest and wickedest bits is the aspiring actresses’ cynical but nonetheless genuine excitement upon hearing the rumor that a new film project will be a Southern epic. “With parts for slaves! Slaves that . . . talk!”
Act I essentially hinges on the principled Vera’s dilemma: whether or not she will lower herself to start her career by playing a ludicrously stereotypical slave role. But the situation surprisingly contains little drama. A decision not to take on such a role is noble; a decision to take it on, while not totally beyond reproach, seems perfectly understandable and sympathetic, even more so given the historical moment, in which these truly are the only options.
It would be almost impossible to review the play without discussing Act II, but the post-intermission curtain opens on a surprise, and the act develops in an unexpected way, so if you prefer to keep those sorts of surprises fresh: warning, spoiler ahead.
Act I leaves us in limbo about what’s ahead for Vera and her career after she decides to play the slave role, and we think we’ll return to find out, in the most immediate sense, how her career develops. But instead, in Act II, we jump ahead to the 1970s with the now much older Vera on a cheesy Mike Douglas-style TV chat show, looking back on her career alongside the likewise much older (but no wiser) Gloria.
It’s a jump within a jump: The talk show episode itself, though we’re watching live actors onstage enacting it, is being screened and discussed by a panel of academics at a 2003 film festival meant to honor the now mysteriously disappeared Vera. We see her and her complicated decision through layers of interpretations and filters of history retold and reconsidered. Meet Vera Stark. But who is she really?
There’s much in the script to tempt a theatrical team considering a big, elaborate production (a story set in the golden age of Hollywood, a film within a play, multiple settings, a big time shift, a supporting cast that changes roles between Acts I and II), and the Alliance has certainly created a gorgeous one. John Coyne’s lusciously opulent retro sets, Adam Larsen’s hilarious projections of the fictitious Vera Stark movie, and Esosa’s costumes are all Broadway-ready.
But as with many slick, bells-and-whistles productions that appear on the Great White Way, there’s a crucial level of intimacy missing. It might have been found in a more scaled-down, black-box-style production. We always feel kind of far from Vera Stark. In some places that’s the point, but in others, certainly as the play progresses, we want to draw near; otherwise what is the point? In elaborate Hollywood mansions, in funny satires of old movies and in a meticulously created ’70s TV talk show, it’s not easy to get up close and personal with our subject, which is what we long for and what eludes us.
Act II is basically narrated by the panel, and they’re meant to be somewhat pompous, overly academic and political in their approach. But certainly some of what they say about Vera’s image is of interest. But the panel is presented as broadly comic, so it’s hard to trust that we’re meant to seriously consider what they say when they’re represented as so cartoonish. I also found the younger Vera more intriguing, believable and compelling than Trucks’ older Vera, which made for a somewhat lopsided evening.
Still, “Vera Stark” is an interesting comic take on an untold Hollywood story. It may not have the flashy draw or buzz of the Alliance’s earlier shows, but there are some hearty laughs and serious ideas waiting here for those who will take the time for them.