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"Vera Stark" Tackles An Interesting Subject With Disappointing Results

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Lynn Nottage's play, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, is more intriguing as a concept than a reality. It looks at the marginalization of African-American actors in the twentieth century, an undeniably interesting subject, but then stumbles in multiple ways. The fault, unfortunately, is in the writing, and the strong cast in the new production at the Geffen Playhouse isn't able to overcome this problem.

The story begins in 1933 Hollywood, where aspiring black actress Vera Stark (Sanaa Lathan) works as a maid for popular starlet Gloria Mitchell (Amanda Detmer). Gloria wants a role in an upcoming film, "The Belle of New Orleans," and she's having the producer and director over to her home to convince them to cast her. Vera wants a strong supporting role as a maid in the film, but she may have to rely on racial stereotypes to be noticed at all. The story then jumps to seventy years later, when academic Herb Forrester (Kevin T. Carroll) is holding a symposium on the meaning of Vera's life after she became a working actress, and why she never had the success of her white contemporaries.

Lathan is terrific in the lead role, particularly in the second act, where she seems wry and sharp and real as the fabulous and irascible Vera. A scene wherein she believes someone is finally about to reveal a secret that will put a spotlight on her suffering and relieve it, and her reaction when that person doesn't, is quietly devastating. Detmer is quite funny as Gloria, the less than demure "America's Sweetheart." Carroll impresses as the heedlessly enthusiastic Forrester, but even more so in a scene where he portrays the older version of Vera's husband Leroy, regret and pain and anger mixed together indelibly. Finally, Kimberly Hébert Gregory is a standout as Vera's friend Lottie, her skilled comic timing on display.

Jo Bonney's direction is professional but seems uninspired, and doesn't mitigate against the problems of the text. Nottage can't be faulted for ambition, but the execution is underwhelming. The characterizations, particularly in the first act, are thin, and the character's actions are predictable. The humor feels like something from a sitcom, one casual setup and punch line after another, never probing much deeper. The second act is smarter and more effective, but it repeats itself, ultimately fizzling out.

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This subject matter is intriguing and relevant, but it deserves a better play.

"By The Way, Meet Vera Stark" plays through Oct. 28 at the Geffen Playhouse. Tickets are available online.