After 2009’s Ruined — her Mother Courage-inspired, Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatization of abuse, rape, and violence set in a modern-day, war-torn Congo — Lynn Nottage has returned with a sassy screwball comedy set in the golden age of Hollywood. It would be easy to dismiss By the Way, Meet Vera Stark as a sort of theatrical palate cleanser after the gut-wrenching Ruined; it’s fast and funny, with good old-fashioned stock characters — the ’30s Jewish movie mogul, the cheeseball ’70s talk-show host, both devoured with relish by David Garrison — and intentionally exaggerated acting. (West Side Story Tony winner Karen Olivo does some sensational scenery-chewing in her dual turn as a social-climbing bogus Brazilian and a militant lesbian poetess.) But there’s substance behind all of the script’s style.
Nottage doesn’t put a woman in this world without seriously questioning her place in it — whether it’s African-American seamstress Esther in her turn-of-the-century romance Intimate Apparel, the titular knocked-up, washed-up publicist in Fabulation or, the Re-Education of Undine, or the teenage denizens of a Congolese brothel in Ruined. The woman struggling to find her place in society here is Vera Stark, an actress/maid played with spunk and swagger by Sanaa Lathan. She spends act 1 placating her movie-star boss (a terrifically over-the-top Stephanie J. Block), bantering with a musician/chauffeur (Daniel Breaker, a total charm), and shucking and jiving in an impromptu audition for a Southern epic called The Belle of New Orleans. She spends act 2 — set in 2003 — as the subject of an academic speech: ”Rediscovering Vera Stark, the Legacy of The Belle of New Orleans.” Needless to say, the shucking and jiving paid off; you’ll even get to see a film.
Nottage’s post-intermission decade-hopping might throw you for a loop; the play takes a pretty abrupt shift in tone as well. Suddenly a trio of academics are arguing over Vera Stark’s career as we watch a tipsy Vera in a Jo Anne Worley wig and a Carmen Miranda dress croon ”Fly Me to the Moon.” They’re in 2003, she’s in 1973, and before the show is over Nottage will take her back to 1933. Eventually, Vera does find her place. B+
(Tickets: 2st.com or 212-246-4422)