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'Vera Stark' makes starry debut

Vera Stark

Vera Stark

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark
3 stars

"By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," a new comedic drama by Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage ("Ruined"), tackles the fascinating subject of black women who played the servant and slave roles - often poorly written and degrading for the actors -  in early Hollywood films.

It uses a double-pronged structure similar to Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park With George" or Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia."

In Act 1, set in 1933, Vera Stark (Sanaa Lathan) is introduced as the gorgeous maid of whiny and self-absorbed Hollywood starlet Gloria Mitchell (Stephanie J. Block).

Mitchell is on the verge of landing the lead role in "The Belle of New Orleans," an epic film depicting the Old South, and Stark is hoping to be considered for the key supporting role as the heroine's slave.

Act 1 ends with Stark attempting to impress the film's Russian director that she can convey a raw, authentic past by hilariously rewriting her life story. Meanwhile, her similarly desperate companions are either breaking into verses of "Let My People Go" or sporting a fake accent.

In Act 2, which is set in the present day, a film historian leads a discussion on Stark's performance in "The Belle of New Orleans." He and two other commentators watch a clip of a 1973 talk show on which Stark made her last public appearance before she mysteriously disappeared from the spotlight.

The play is considerably lighter in tone than "Ruined" and contains both good humor and keen historical insight. A recurring debate focuses on whether or not Stark degraded herself by playing menial roles. In her defense, Stark claims that she made the most of her opportunities and opened doors for black performers.

Jo Bonney's excellent production is marked by sublimely ridiculous performances from an excellent ensemble, including Block, Karen Olivo, Daniel Breaker and David Garrison. Lathan portrays Stark as a sexy and savvy individual with the confidence and know-how to rise to the top of her profession.

If you go: "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark" plays at Second Stage Theatre through May 29. 305 W. 43rd St., 212-246-4422,

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