Lynn Nottage’s play “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” being revived by Signature Theatre, aims to comically expose the way African-American women were treated in the early days of Hollywood and beyond. Her satirical thrust makes some good points and it is often very funny. But satire may not be the strong point for this author, whose powerful plays “Sweat” and “Ruined” won Pulitzer Prizes.
The first act is best, but the second act, devoted to a pontificating retrospective on what happened to Vera, becomes very heavy-handed, losing the witty tone that deftly draws us into the play earlier with piercing hilarity.
As the situation is examined in 1933, we meet Vera, wonderfully acted by Jessica Frances Dukes, who is working as a maid for, and helping to rehearse lines with, the nervous blonde star Gloria Mitchell, played over the top by Jenni Barber. Vera is very feisty, not subservient in her dealings with Mitchell.
Nottage has created other attention grabbing characters. Vera’s roommates are played by Heather Alicia Simms, as a woman who once had theater experience, and Carra Patterson, as a brassy aspiring actress, who disguises her origins by pretending to be an exotic foreigner, and turning on the sex appeal, fools a pretentious, egotistical director, satirically played as someone who wants to make a great movie about slaves.
In one hilarious scene, Vera finds herself doing maid duties for Mitchell when the roommate with the false identity sweeps in with all of her fictitious behavior and phony accent. If looks could kill.
The premise of the play is that Vera does find a career opening playing a slave girl in the film that gets made, and she becomes known for a spell but ultimately disappears. The second act is devoted into one of those rediscovery events at which film buffs gather to reassess cinema past. The subject is whatever happened to Vera Stark and what the answer reveals about blacks in the movie world. Incorporated are clips from a TV talk show with an obnoxious host. An aged Vera has appeared as a guest on the show to talk about her life, which we learn from the retrospective discussion ended in poverty and tragedy.
The acting in the play’s second half is mostly overbearing, as is the writing. Nottage makes the points she is after, and it is clear she is also trying to satirize the pretentiousness that can characterize such gabfests, but one longs for the brightness and barbed comedy displayed in the early part, when the then highly spirited Vera optimistically sets out to be auditioned and find a career.
Ultimately we are still left with Nottage’s overall perceptive viewpoint and the memory of the excellent performance by Dukes as Vera. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-244-7529. Reviewed February 25, 2019.