A fluffy screwball comedy passing as a deeper social commentary, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” opens in 1933 Hollywood, where an aspiring black actress yearns for a career playing more than just the racial stereotypes depicted in movies of the era. That Vera is currently working as a put-upon maid to a ditzy fading starlet — and gets her big break with a “Mammy” role in a popular Civil War epic — gives the play certain satirical possibilities (think “The Colored Museum”) that it largely squanders.
As mindless farces go, it’s innocuous enough. But you might expect better than that coming from Lynn Nottage, whose previous credits include her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Ruined” (a gut-wrenching drama about battle-scarred brothel workers in the war-torn Congo) and “Intimate Apparel” (her poignant character study about a black seamstress in 1900s New York, which was exquisitely rendered in a 2006 Alliance Theatre production).
The Alliance’s “Meet Vera Stark,” directed by Leah C. Gardiner, is eventually too silly and shallow to serve its own higher purpose. Rather than pitching everything for laughs, parts of the show deserve to be played straight, but too few of them are. Although Nottage talks a good game about “capturing the truth” and “taking bold new steps,” her own characters rarely feel more authentic or dimensional than the objectionable caricatures they’re up against.
The play’s first act is all about the making of “The Belle of New Orleans” and how Vera (Toni Trucks) manages to ingratiate herself to the powers that be — including buffoonish directors and studio executives, if not exactly her scatterbrained employer, Gloria Mitchell (a delightful Courtney Patterson), a movie star once billed as “America’s Little Sweetie Pie” who’s testing for the leading role of a dying Southern virgin and “octoroon.”
Gardiner and projection designer Adam Larsen periodically incorporate clips from the film, which we’re meant to believe comes to be considered some classic “work of art.” It bears an obvious resemblance to “Gone With the Wind,” even though its histrionic style and tone probably owe as much to that famous Carol Burnett skit that spoofed it.
Any hope that Nottage will take the plot in a more serious direction quickly dissolves after intermission. The equally frivolous second act alternately takes place during a 1973 TV talk show (reintroducing us to Vera as a kind of brassy Vegas has-been) and at a 2003 film-festival retrospective (as a pompous movie geek, a prim cultural anthropologist and a radical lesbian slam poet debate her career and its presumed significance). Instead of giving the play any greater satirical edge, Nottage settles for aiming at easy targets as opposed to drawing profound observations.
Each member of the supporting cast revels in his or her mostly flamboyant dual roles: Andrew Benator, Genesis Oliver, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, Daniel Triandiflou and an especially resourceful Nikiya Mathis. And Gardiner’s production is quite lavishly designed, as well (sets by John Coyne, costumes by Esosa).
The story could have made a relevant drama, but a little of its forced comedy goes a long way. Don’t let the lofty discussions about the “politics of race” and the “grotesque misrepresentation of history” fool you. If it’s true that “history is but a question being constantly rephrased,” as one character notes, “Meet Vera Stark” essentially poses it as a mere punch line.
“By the Way, Meet Vera Stark”
Through Nov. 10. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. $25-$65. The Alliance Theatre (at the Woodruff Arts Center), 1280 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-733-5000. www.alliancetheatre.org.
Bottom line: A lopsided satire, too trifling to be taken seriously.