As the yearly Oscar hullabaloo sets slowly in the West, Lynn Nottage's By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is lingering at Actor's Theatre to remind us — notwithstanding the Academy's 12 Years a Slave atonement — of the corrupting, dehumanizing effects of Hollywood. It's a tricky script, with a gallery of outsized characters and egos that could easily devolve into caricature, plus a jarring 70-year jump at intermission. By some minor miracle, director Jill Bloede distills all the comedy without undermining Nottage's satiric thrust.
It also helps that Sizwe Bansi Is Dead continues to run at CAST, helping us to see the insidious parallels between apartheid in South Africa of the 1970s and the US star system of the 1930s. What Vera and her two hilarious roommates do to get ahead in Hollywood isn't the result of anything like the desperate situation Sizwe faces, but the demeaning surrender of identity and self-respect are uncomfortably similar.
Vera, Lottie and Anna Mae will take diverging paths of self-prostitution to win supporting roles in The Belle of New Orleans, starring Vera's employer, vain and rising starlet Gloria Mitchell, America's Sweetie Pie. You don't want to miss the soiree Gloria throws — she's certainly not above some mercenary campaigning of her own — as Vera and her pals take shots at impressing film director Maximillian Von Oster and producer Fredrick Slasvick with their shuffling servile antics.
We have no problems feeling more enlightened than everyone onstage as this orgy of pretense brings Act 1 to a close. Bloede and her superb cast deftly show us that the colloquium panelists we see after intermission, despite their enlightened 2003 viewpoints, are merely contemporary reincarnations of the high-grade poseurs they are dissecting and pitying. Mulling over the tragic trajectory Vera's career took after her breakthrough and speculating over what happened to her after her mysterious disappearance, moderator/filmmaker Herb Forrester, media studies professor Carmen Levy-Green and lesbian performance artist Afua Assata Ejobo all show themselves to be intoxicated by the spotlight.
Between these authorities' pontifications, we are offered clips from the finished Belle of New Orleans and portions of a 1973 Brad Donovan talk show, where Vera and Gloria made their final joint public appearance. Both of these has-beens have drunk the Kool-Aid of their own celebrity, long ago forgetting the self-demeaning actions they took to attain their diva status; in Vera's case, already permeated with anger and pathos.
When we first see Brandi Feemster as Vera, she is dressed as Gloria's maid, in the scene they will be best remembered for. Caroline Bower is so self-indulgently consumptive as the dying Gloria that we expect an unseen director to shout "Cut!" from almost the beginning. The halt actually comes when Gloria can't remember her lines, for she and Vera are rehearsing, before either of them has a solid prospect of landing the role of a lifetime.
That scene chimes nicely with Nottage's closing scene, where we flash back to Vera and Gloria having a one-on-one between takes at the studio as Belle is being shot. Whatever else we're being told here, we're being reminded that the oppressed Vera and not the pampered Gloria is the brains of this operation. So Feemster's task is rather complex here, zigzagging from serenity to deviousness to shameless pandering in Act 1 and adding a layer of arrogant wrath after intermission.
Bower has the easier way because whites — or those who pass for white — have never needed to be nearly as absurd as blacks to capture the attention of Hollywood's power brokers. But even if hers is the simpler, more consistent lead, it's hard to overpraise Bower's wonderful synthesis of hauteur and dim-wittedness.
Supporting players all get new identities during the break. As Leroy Barksdale, Gerard Hazelton is Vera's cool limo-driving confidant before he transforms into the effete Forrester. Iesha Nyree Hoffman take, take, takes as Anna Mae, the roommate who has the audacity to masquerade as a Latina to get ahead, before returning as the equally obstreperous Afua. Aloof and mocking at first as Lottie, Ericka Ross stoops lower than anyone else to ride Gloria's petticoats; then she reverts to academic aloofness as Carmen, but you can be sure a screw comes loose before she's done.
Vulgar and cocksure, Robert Lee Simmons is a quintessential Hollywood producer at Gloria's soiree, but he's likely having just as much fun in Act 2 as the slick and vapid talk show host, sporting a more muted smugness. Newcomer Johnny Huber makes his best impression as the yet-to-compromise Von Oster before reappearing as stoned rocker Brian Blaze, a totally incongruous guest on the Brad Donovan show — one last indicator that Nottage has her finger on the pulse of showbiz daftness and America's narcissistic celebrity culture.
Is it necessary to use curse language when reviewing a children's musical?