If you want to laugh, the first act of “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” at LSU’s Reilly Theatre is a good place to be. If you’re less interested in wearisome posturing, intermission might be a good time to leave.
This LSU Theatre production of Lynn Nottage’s play, directed by Pirronne Yousefzadeh, is two very different experiences. The first is an often hilarious yet engaging story of how Hollywood gave short shrift to Depression-era black performers. The second is an imagined dissection of one of those black actresses, a three-way argument that leaves the audience mentally racing to keep up with what’s being said.
Breon Cobb plays the title role, a maid for actress Gloria Mitchell (played by Mallory Osigian), who is trying to hang on to the popularity she had as a young actress. Stark — in addition to helping Mitchell learn her lines, get to the studio on time and avoid self-sabotage — wants to get into movies herself. The movie that Mitchell is auditioning for, “The Belle of New Orleans,” includes a role for a maid, a speaking part that’s better than is usual for black performers.
She, of course, isn’t the only one who wants it. Friends Lottie McBride (Fola Afolayan) and Anna Mae Simpkins (Maja Dupas) also want to climb the Hollywood ladder. Their different attempts to do that — Lottie with her voice and acting, Anna with her seductive wiles — drive some of the plot and much of the comedy.
Cobb is seldom offstage, handling everything this play throws at her. She is alternatively deferential, demanding and entreating, and also displaying a good singing voice in the brief moments it is called into use. She oozes self-assurance in dealing with Leroy Barksdale (Gregory Davis Jr.), a musician, smooth operator and chauffeur to the director who suggests he may be able to help her get an audition.
Likewise, Osigian carries well the varied personalities of Mitchell, whether ditzy, drunk or devious. A lot of her humor is physical, and she is fun to watch.
Afolayan is also hilarious when she slips into the stereotypical role into which Hollywood pigeonholed so many black actresses in that era. Anything, it seems, to win the favor of the studio boss, Mr. Slasvick (Anthony Marble), and director, Maxamillion Von Oster (Lance Rasmussen). Every time she launches into a rendition of “Go Down, Moses,” it has the audience in stitches.
If the first-act insufficiently emphasizes the lousy deal that black performers had, the second act more than makes up for it. If the folklore hero John Henry had driven those railroad spikes this relentlessly, the steam hammer would have been begging for mercy before the song’s fourth verse.
Intermission ends with everyone except Cobb and Osigian having changed roles. Afolayan, Dupas and Davis have morphed into modern-day intellectuals looking back on Vera Stark’s career and whether she deserved criticism or understanding for accepting such limited, even demeaning, roles. It’s a subject worth exploring, but the pretentious pundits grab the microphone from each other to propound obscure academic theory. As well, they speak so fast that it’s impossible to think about what they are saying. That may or may not be a bad thing.
The act includes a 1973 talk show in which Stark and Mitchell are reunited. It has its tedious moments, but Marble and Rasmussen are wonderful as the Merv Griffin-esque talk show host and the British musician on the show.
The set work and costuming were first rate, and those old enough to remember 1973 will especially enjoy the talk show.
If they stick around after intermission, that is.