By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
The studio mogul (Spencer Garrett) and the director go head-to-head over the issue of whether the "truth" should be pursued in earnest or studiously avoided for the sake of comforting audiences during an economic downturn.
They don't want oppression, the mogul insists, after the director says he wants to film The Belle of New Orleans in a brothel, showing the wrinkles on the prostitutes. No prostitutes, no wrinkles, the mogul rages. Audiences want romance and diversion. One would presume that black characters in leading roles also violates this tenet of romance and diversion, though the studio execs don't discuss explicitly.
Nottage bifurcates her play into an act set in 1930s Hollywood, and a more contemporary act featuring a panel of goofy academics reviewing Vera Stark's last interview on a talk show in the 1970s.
ESosa's gorgeous and amusing costumes fuel the shift from satire to parody — a shift that consumes everything except Lathan's now intoxicated, humiliated-by-life performer.
The play follows the tradition of George C. Wolfe's 1986 The Colored Museum — a festival of black stereotypes aiming to look at the origins and essences of stereotypes — but the poignancy of so many of Wolfe's characters is here in short supply. Even Vera in decline settles into a cliche, despite the tenderness of Lathan's performance. Throughout the production, Nottage's very intriguing premise gets joked away in a style of sketch comedy that's too relentless for the play's own good.
As the saying goes, there's a kernel of truth in every joke, and this is Vera Stark's best defense. And yet, the production comes packed with the small satirical truths trying to cement the larger truth that Vera Stark has been marginalized because she's black. Do we really need an academic panel to draw that obvious conclusion, or a parody of one?
One of the academics insightfully notes that Vera was so sly, she was revolutionary — commenting through facial expressions on the indignity of her role. This may be the play's most compelling insight, but how can we take it seriously from a panel that's a mockery of itself?
In Nottage's earlier plays Intimate Apparel and Ruined, levity yields to moments of deadly seriousness and conviction. Vera Stark feels like a play swirling in an author's passion and curiosity, but a play in which she's still searching for what to believe.
BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK | By Lynn Nottage | Geffen Playhouse, 10866 Le Conte Ave., Westwood | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through Oct. 28. | (310) 208-5454 | geffenplayhouse.com