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Theatre Review (LA): By the Way, Meet Vera Stark

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The Geffen Playhouse opened its 17th season with a curious but interesting play by Lynn Nottage, writer of the 15th season’s Ruined. By the Way, Meet Vera Stark takes place in the Hollywood of the ‘30s. In 1934 the infamous Hayes Code was beginning to be enforced. Limitations were placed on all sorts of things including profanity and nudity, and there were restrictions on the allowable interactions between the white and black races. Mainly these interactions were limited to exchanges between mistress and maid.

The play concerns a beautiful wannabe actress, Vera Stark, whom we first meet as the maid to Gloria Mitchell, an actress who is about to audition for the role of an octoroon in an upcoming movie set in New Orleans. Vera would do anything to play her maid in the film as well, so when the director, who comes over to meet Gloria, tells the producer, who is also present, that he wants “real” negroes who have lived the life, Vera and her fellow maid Lottie go into their best stoop and shuffle.

Along for the ride are a black friend of the ladies, Anna Mae, who is passing for white and dating the director. As it turns out all the women including Gloria are black or pass for black and all turn up in the film. In the first act we also meet the director’s chauffeur, Leroy Barksdale, who tries to hit on Vera. The first act has many laughs due to all the posturing going on.

The second act is an entirely different kind of drama, more serious in tone, which tries to solve to problem of what happened to Vera Stark who had more or less disappeared. The scene is a talk show in the ‘70s where Vera and Gloria are being interviewed. Some secrets are revealed, and the scene is interspersed with snippets from the movie that had introduced Vera. A panel is made up of the other actors as different characters, a feat which they pull off expertly, though I liked the men better in the second act and felt they weren’t right in the first. The women however were terrific in both acts, especially Sanaa Lathan as Vera. The director is Jo Bonney who does a superb job. By the Way, Meet Vera Stark will play at the Geffen until Oct. 28.

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