We first meet Vera Stark rehearsing a movie scene with Gloria Mitchell, the Hollywood star for whom she works as maid and confidant.
It’s 1933 and Gloria is desperate to land the title role in “The Belle of New Orleans,” a Southern melodrama (the trend will culminate six years later in “Gone With the Wind”).
Gloria is somewhat long in the tooth for ingenue roles and drinks gin for breakfast when necessary. Like everyone else in the company town, Vera, too, is looking for her chance to break into the movies, and if being maid to a vain white actress is her best opportunity, then dust she will.
Lynn Nottage’s ingenious new play, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” follows Vera’s fortunes as both she and Gloria are cast in “The Belle of New Orleans,” essentially recreating their real-life roles on screen.
As with her Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Ruined,” set in a Congolese brothel, and “Intimate Apparel,” set in a sweatshop, Nottage reveals the lives of women who aren’t likely to show up in New York Times trend stories. She makes them worthy of our attention.
In the play’s more successful Act I, we visit the apartment Vera shares with two friends, Lottie (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) and Anne Mae (Karen Olivo), also on the make for a break, while casting jaundiced eyes on a white world intent on boxing them in as servants and hussies.
Act II, set in 1973 and 2003, makes Vera more of a mystery, the question being, “whatever happened to?”
Sanaa Lathan, an actress who exudes quiet sensuality, shows Vera morphing from flavor-of-the-moment star to a kind of Eartha Kitt-enish chanteuse. She’s viewed from the perspective of a talk-show guest and as the subject of a fatuous panel discussion.
Director Jo Bonney stages the second-act back-and-forth transitions with appealing fluidity, but that doesn’t make them work.
The promise of Act I, especially in Vera’s crackling scenes with a cocksure chauffeur played by the gifted Daniel Breaker, goes largely unfulfilled. The balance of Vera’s life is recounted as parody. We’ve met her in the flesh, but all too quickly, that Vera departs, only to return as a symbol in the flickering light.
Through May 22 at Second Stage Theatre, 307 W. 43rd St. Information: +1-212-246-4422; http://www.2st.com **1/2
‘A Minister’s Wife’
Shaw’s “Candida” is about the effervescent wife of a socially active, priggish and pompous minister, who casts her spell on a truculent young poet. Mad for her and finding her husband insufferable, young Eugene Marchbanks does everything he can to irritate the Rev. James Morell. Nothing he does, however, irritates like the new musical that Michael Halberstam has commissioned from the play.
“A Minister’s Wife” is a one-acter with a score by Joshua Schmidt (he composed the very good “Adding Machine”) and Jan Levy Tranen. The book is by Austin Pendleton, a one-man national theater who has been actor, writer, director and producer, sometimes all at once.
Their efforts add up to a considerable number of detractions. The music is derivative of Sondheim in a way that “Adding Machine” was not; the lyrics offer some lovely aphorisms without being especially revealing. And the book is reductive, a cardinal sin when you’re dealing with a play of ideas.
What “A Minister’s Wife” does have is Bobby Steggert, an increasingly prominent actor, who plays Marchbanks with fiery energy. He’s got a choice puppy-love object in Kate Fry’s peachy Candida, but less of a foil in Marc Kudisch’s stuck-in-the-mud Morell.
At the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecarge.com. Rating: *1/2
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Very Good ** Average * Not So Good (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)