Please, Lynn Nottage, Don’t Make Me ‘Meet Vera Stark’!

One of our towering dramatic playwrights finds no time for comedy.

Heather Alicia Simms, Jenni Barber, Jessica Frances Dukes in "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark." Photo by Joan Marcus.

Lynn Nottage is the first woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama — for Ruined in 2009 and for Sweat in 2017. It’s an unquestionably deserved distinction — and note particularly that both plays are, in fact, dramas. They’re not comedies.

But comedy is what Nottage has turned to on a couple of occasions, and it’s the comedy-writing Nottage to whom Signature Theatre Artistic Director Paige Evans has turned for the playwright’s 2018-19 season retrospective. Only two months ago, Nottage’s Fabulation, or the Education of Undine was revived — a play for which I don’t hold high regard but didn’t see again for possible reassessment.

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The second production is By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. The company isn’t doing Nottage any great favors with it. By the Way, Vera Stark didn’t appeal to me when it first bowed at Second Stage. It dribbles across the footlights even less persuasively now.

I’m hard-pressed to attribute my negative response to a second view of Nottage’s writing or to the misguided efforts of director Kamilah Forbes. I can only submit that the two-act spoof (is it a spoof?) is tedious for a couple of reasons.

Nottage’s purpose is clear, admirable and pertinent to racism and racist stereotyping as a continuing national plague. She’s chosen to look the situation of Black actors attempting to get, and to maintain, a Hollywood foothold. It’s a fascinating idea, but she pursues it in a most mundane fashion.

To wit (or its scarcity thereof): It’s 1933, and the eponymous Vera Stark (Jessica Frances Dukes) is a Black maid in service to Hollywood darling Gloria Mitchell (Jenni Barber), a secret octoroon. The sparring ladies are discovered in Mitchell’s glitzy drawing-room (Clint Ramos is the set designer) while rehearsing an audition for which the floozy-blonde actress is preparing and for which the servant is patently more astute about the script, The Belle of New Orleans. (Think of Jean Harlow in the 1933 Dinner at Eight; Nottage did, as did Dede M. Ayite, this production’s costume designer.)

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What ensues is a send-up of bad screenwriting — a compendium of movie-spoof clichés. I the 86 years since 1933, this scenario has been done innumerable times and much better, so Nottage is actually piling clichés on clichés. She compounds the familiarity by bringing on, among others, the upcoming film’s director, Maximillian Von Oster (Manoel Felciano) to wax verbose on the “real” African-Americans he wants to cast. Whereupon Vera and her drink-dispensing pal, Lottie McBride (Heather Alicia Simms), start to get shufflin’ for their own impromptu audition.

Seen this brand of send-up before, have you? That’s not where Nottage stops, with spins on what others have done earlier and better. When she decides that her attenuated first act has run its course, she commences a second act.

Now on an upstage screen is the completed Belle of New Orleans film with Gloria and Vera, who have won their roles, replaying the maudlin audition sequence from earlier. The clip is intended to elicit even more guffaws — and perhaps trigger Gone With the Wind memories. (Likelier, it’ll trigger memories of Carol Burnett’s classic Went With the Wind!)

Nottage doesn’t end her send-ups there, either: she switches them. Once the weepy finale runs its course, an overly enthusiastic Herb Forrester (Warner Miller, having earlier played a chauffeur) appears. It’s 2003; Herb announces that he’ll moderate a panel on the career of the now-vanished Vera Stark. Out stride Carmen Levy-Green (Simms), a semiotician, and Afua Assata Ejobo (Carra Patterson), a combative Camille-Paglia-type commentator.

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This is Nottage, shifting comic gears, launching a jibe at pretentious academic panels. What follows is exactly what inured skit-mavens will expect: a harsh and woefully predictable skewering of moronic self-importance. Do Levy-Green and Ejobo diss each other with mounting tension? Do they both hold up books they’ve written on the hifalutin’ subject Well, guess what: Nottage still hasn’t finished with targets at which she aims bent arrows. Every once in a while, the pushy and interrupting Forrester halts the panel to run a 1973 video of Vera Stark’s appearance on something called The Brad Donovan Show. Nottage is now alternating pokes at uppity panels with jabs at inane talk shows.

Of course. On the simple-minded show hosted by the titular Brad (David Turner, having played an uninteresting character in the first act who isn’t worth the bother), Vera carries on boringly. That is, when Brad isn’t being cutesy-wootsie or when his other guest, rocker Peter Rhys-Davies, in striped bell bottoms and visibly high, isn’t slurring British-invasion nothings. For an added surprise, Brad intros Gloria Mitchell, just in from London. Do Vera and Gloria gush over each other? Do they eventually come to verbal blows?

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Required now are words of understanding and sympathy for the actors, who know they’re in a comedy. The question is whether they know they’re in an unrewarding one. Could be, so they’re doing their damndest to make it funny. Except that the well-established thing about comedy is that pushing too hard for effect is inevitably counterproductive. And so it is here, with the notable exception of a brief video turn that Miller does as Barksdale the chauffeur, recalling Vera in later life. (Katherine Freer did the projection design.) But then again, who can blame the cast members for wallowing? Perhaps director Forbes even asked them all to ratchet up the broad comic attack.

Enough with the tired satirical elbowing that is By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. Next year, a new Nottage play arrives at the Signature. Let us hope for a drama — Nottage could angle for a third Pulitzer. Certainly I advise her that she finds (to quote S. N. Behrman) no time for comedy.