Performing Arts

‘Vera Stark’ at the Unicorn an uneasy mix of laughs, serious intent

Dianne Yvette, left, is Vera Stark opposite Katie Karel as film star Gloria Mitchell.
Dianne Yvette, left, is Vera Stark opposite Katie Karel as film star Gloria Mitchell.

The Unicorn closes out its season with a social satire, the intermittently amusing “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” a play by Lynn Nottage that uses as its point of departure female African-American stereotypes in Hollywood films from the 1930s.

Nottage’s mantel is groaning with awards, including a Pulitzer for “Ruined,” but my reaction to her work has always been the same: You can easily described her as “interesting” but never as “exciting.” Her plays — at least the ones I’ve seen — are constructs designed to make valid if obvious points about the issues involved.

“By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” is no exception. Nottage is hardly known for her rollicking sense of humor, but here she tries her hand at acerbic satire mixed with moments of comedy that stop just short of slapstick.

The Unicorn Theatre production, directed by Missy Koonce, occasionally comes to life, thanks to a gifted cast and Koonce’s instinct for bizarre humor. To be sure, laughs are there to be had, and Koonce and her actors make the most of the opportunities.

In Act 1 we meet the title character (Dianne Yvette), a young, aspiring actress in Hollywood who is working as a maid and/or personal assistant to Gloria Mitchell (Katie Karel), a starlet billed as “America’s Little Sweetie Pie.” Vera is helping Gloria prep for a screen test that could land her the lead in “The Belle of New Orleans,” an epic set in the antebellum South.

Vera urges Gloria to put a word in for her because the film includes the role of a loyal maid that Vera sees as a real part.

Meanwhile, we meet Vera’s roommates: Lottie (Donette Coleman), a Broadway veteran who is trying to pack on the pounds so she can play maids and nannies, and Anna Mae (Emily Shackelford), whose light skin allows her to pose as a Brazilian with a faux accent.

We also meet Leroy Barksdale (Tosin Morohunfola), a jazz musician who drives a limousine for a powerful Hollywood director and who becomes smitten with Vera.

The first act reaches its zany peak in a dinner party sequence in which Vera and Lottie are uniformed servers and Gloria becomes increasingly inebriated.

Anna Mae arrives on the arm of celebrated filmmaker Maxmilian Von Oster (Justin Speer), while Mr. Slasvik (Marc Liby), the studio boss, has a candid conversation with Vera and watches with deadpan amusement as she seeks to impress Von Oster with what might be called her “slave persona.”

In Act 2, we leap forward to a panel discussion in 2003 about the significance of Vera Stark and the role she ultimately won in “The Belle of New Orleans.” The chatterbox moderator (Morohunfola) brings together a “black lesbian performance poet” (Shackelford) and an African-American professor of gender and media studies (Coleman) whose mutual hostility threatens to derail the discussion.

The panel watches clips from a 1972 talk-show appearance by Vera, in which a surprise visit by Gloria stirs up old enmities. These “clips” are performed live, with Liby playing the obsequious Mike Douglas-like talk-show host and Speer transforming himself into a stoned British rocker.

Compared to the nicely structured first act, Act 2 is a chaotic mess. We jump back and forth in time and see video clips from “The Belle of New Orleans” as well as a prison interview with Barksdale (seems he beat someone to death with his trumpet).

Ultimately, however, Nottage arrives at a moment of poignancy as we learn that Vera and Gloria have a relationship that goes back to childhood. We last glimpse the young Vera alone in a spotlight, a real person, an aspiring artist, not yet burdened with symbolic importance, social significance or iconography.

Yvette and Karel deliver solid, often amusing performances. But the most impressive work comes from the supporting players.

Coleman and Shackelford are a riot in their dual roles, and Morohunfola is as charismatic and precise as ever.

Liby’s performance as talk-show host Brad Donovan is hilarious. Speer’s performance in Act 1 as the Stroheim-like European film director who thinks he knows about American slavery but obviously doesn’t, is nicely handled.

Strong contributions are made by costume designer Erica Sword and Mark Titus, who shot the “Belle of New Orleans” black-and-white clips.

There’s real substance in this play, but its crazy-quilt structure undermines most of its potential impact. Credit the actors for giving it their best shot.

Onstage

“By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” runs through June 29 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. Go to unicorntheatre.org for ticket information.

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