Saturday, April 23, 2011

New York, April 2011 - Day Ten, "By The Way, Meet Vera Stark" & "Good People"

"By The Way, Meet Vera Stark"
In my review of “Kin,” I proffered the notion that just because life doesn’t always give you what you want, you better learn how to be happy getting what you get. But after seeing “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark,” at the Second Stage Theater today, I realized that’s a statement that’s much easier to make when you’re a somewhat privileged white male. If you’re a black woman, especially a black woman in 1933, even when you get what you want it can turn out to be sorely lacking.

“By The Way, Meet Vera Stark” is the latest work from playwright Lynn Nottage, who penned the wonderful “Intimate Apparel” and the Pulitzer-winning “Ruined.” The lady of the title is maid to a Hollywood starlet -- but with big screen dreams of her own. For Vera Stark, though, the big dream isn’t to be a star, it’s simply to be cast as the maid to "The Belle of New Orleans" – who has a significant number of lines, not the usual “yes’ms ” and “yassirs” of the slaves and lackeys that made up the majority of roles for negro actors in the depression.

Without giving too much away, the first half of the show is set in 1933, and shows how Vera uses the stereotypes inflicted on her by the culture in power to make the first steps toward achieving her goals.

But it’s the second half of the show where Nottage’s brilliance (and passion) come pouring through. It’s 70 years later and a panel of black intellectuals are now dissecting and deconstructing the career of the great African-America artist Vera Stark – in part by looking back to the very end of Stark’s career, an appearance on a Mike Douglas-style TV talk show. The point of view shifts from the 2003 commentators/intellectuals in a panel discussion, to the set of “The Brad Donovan Show” in 1973.

Vera is past her prime, overdressed and just the tiniest bit drunk – but is still relatively restrained in her indictment of 1930s Hollywood. Rage is left to the radical intellectual onstage, Afua Assata Ejobo (Karen Olivo), supported (somewhat) by the less radicalized Carmen Levy-Green (Kimberly Hebert Gregory). Herb Forrester (the very funny Daniel Breaker) moderates their discussion and grounds us in space and time.

Nottage does a wonderful job of showing how much easier it is to talk about struggle than to actually live it, and the 1973 talk show appearance serves as a fulcrum between those two experiences.

The show still has two weeks in previews, so they can work on timings and tighten things a bit, but it’s already a wonderful play, well worth your time.

"Good People"
There are choices we make – and choices that we never get a chance to make. How much of what we become is due to our own virtue (or lack thereof) and how much should be ascribed to fate or the accidents of birth and situation? This question of control over your destiny is at the heart of David Lindsay-Abaire’s newest (and terrific) play, “Good People,” now playing at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater.

As the play opens, Margaret – played with a delicious dishevelment by the ever-amazing Frances McDormand – is being fired from her job at the dollar store for being late one too many times. It’s not that Marge (as her name tag reads) is a shirker, it’s just that she has a lot going on in her life that is beyond her control, most of it related to her adult daughter who is developmentally disabled. Working a $9.40/hour job doesn’t give Marge the leeway to hire someone to care for her daughter while she’s at work, so she has to rely on her unreliable landlady, Dottie (Estelle Parsons). When Dottie is late (which is often), Marge is late.

Mike (Tate Donovan), on the other hand, found a way to escape the hardscrabble background he and Marge shared as children growing up in Boston’s south end. He got into college and medical school and now works as a reproductive endocrinologist and lives in tony Chestnut Hill. When Marge reaches out to Mike in the hope of securing new employment, their lives get entangled in ways that neither of them could imagine – or desire.

Lindsay-Abaire, one of my favorite contemporary playwrights, somehow finds a way to keep Marge a mostly sympathetic character, even when she is a source of chaos in Mike’s life. The cast surrounding McDormand are excellent, especially Patrick Carroll as Stevie, the dollar store manager who fires her.

Ultimately, once we reach the tender conclusion, the choices Marge and Mike have made over their lives define them still, for good and ill.

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