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‘Vera Stark’ — A Comedic Meeting Gone Astray

Kami Rushell Smith and Hannah Husband.   (Mark S. Howard)

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BOSTON — You can see why, after the severity of her plays about African-American women’s dashed hopes (“Intimate Apparel”) and genital mutilation (“Ruined”) in Africa that Lynn Nottage could use a good laugh.

The problem is we could, too, and in the latest by the Pulitzer-winning playwright “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” (at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, through April 27) they are way too far and few in between for a comedy, even one as pointed as this one.

Stark is an African-American actress who’s living as a maid with famous Hollywood ingénue Gloria Mitchell. They are both hoping to land parts in a “Gone With The Wind” meets “Imitation of Life” movie, “Belle of New Orleans,” Gloria as the innocent octoroon romantic lead and Vera as her maid. They, two other black women, and a black chauffeur all have to lower themselves to stereotypes in order to make it in Depression-era America.

It’s a great setup to discuss identity and race whether as a comedy or serious play. Unfortunately, when the characters slip out of their silver screen stereotypes –- we even see clips from the black and white movie –- they don’t feel any more real than they did before. Even Vera isn’t much more than a stick figure with the occasional good line.

Hannah Husband and Kami Smith perform in "By The Way, Meet Vera Stark." (Jonathan Carr)

Hannah Husband and Kami Smith perform in “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark.” (Jonathan Carr)

The wooden dialogue might not be a problem if the lines were sharper, the laughs more rollicking, or the double takes and raised eyebrows less predictable. The surprise twist at the end can be seen the proverbial mile away. Given that the director, Summer L. Williams, and many members of the cast have done such good work elsewhere the problem would seem to be with Nottage rather than the cast. At least Kami Smith as Vera and Hannah Husband as Gloria get to sing beautifully. Too bad it’s not a musical.

If every clown wants to play Hamlet then perhaps the reverse is true as well. Of course, few clowns can play Hamlet and maybe comedy just isn’t Nottage’s thing. The subject matter here is obviously important, though we can all agree that forcing great actors to demean themselves is part of the national racial shame. In that regard, Nottage isn’t telling us anything we don’t know. But to her credit she tries to go beyond that in the second act with a Johnny Carson-Merv Griffin-type show reuniting Vera and Gloria in the ‘70s. This is a panel within a panel as contemporary blowhards –- the most stereotyped figures of all –- watch the video being reenacted by Smith and Husband, Kelby T. Akin as Johnny-Merv and Gregory Balla as a British rock star.

Was Vera in her own subtle way subverting the politics of racism in the film? Was her bad behavior in later life something to be celebrated, even if unchanneled? “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” doesn’t give us enough to chew on in that regard. It just isn’t anything to laugh about.

Here’s the Lyric’s take on the production: