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Rep's 'Vera Stark' has a lot of ground to cover

| Tuesday, March 25, 2014, 7:38 p.m.

Playwright Lynn Nottage shines a light on an often overlooked segment of Hollywood history in “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.”

The comedy continues through April 6 at the Playhouse in Oakland as a production of The Rep, Point Park University's professional company.

Nottage takes us to a brief period the early 1930s when the film industry made a number of movies that included friendships and sexual relationships between people of different races. It was good news to African Americans, who had dreams of making a career in the movies.

Too often, their roles were as slaves, servants or nannies or unnamed background figures, not fully developed characters. To increase their chances at getting meaningful work ­— or any work, some passed themselves off as being white or Latino.

In fact, everyone depicted in this comedy identifies themselves as someone they are not, from Vera's roommate Anna Mae, who masquerades as an Argentinean, to Vera's employer, the aging ingenue Gloria Mitchell, who works overtime to maintain her image as “America's Cutie Pie.”

Even European film director Maxmillian Von Oster may not be quite as authentic as he appears.

Nottage's play actually spans seven decades. It begins in 1933 as Vera is attempting to win a role in the film that will define her career, then fast-forwards to a 2003 panel discussion on what happened to Vera that incorporates footage from her appearance on a 1973 talk show.

There's a lot of ground and a multitude of issues to cover during its two-hour, 40-minute running time, and the production struggles — not always successfully — to keep the energy and interest flowing throughout.

The play's first half covers the 1930s and adequately lays out the issues. Both the 1973 talk show and 2003 panel discussion feel as though they have been tacked on. The cast works overtime to maintain comedy and interest.

On opening night, it seemed almost everyone was trying just a little too hard to convey their characters along with the issues and the comedy. By now, the cast may have relaxed into their roles.

That having been said, Maria Becoates-Bey creates an engaging Vera, who has a clear vision of what she wants and becomes more outspoken as time passes.

As her two African-American friends, Corinne Scott and Bria Walker offer good comedy and depth as Anna Mae, who successfully markets herself as a fiery Latino and as the no-nonsense, plain speaking, very funny Lottie. They re-appear in the 2003 segment in different personas as panel participants with conflicting agendas.

Jeff Howell succeeds at creating two different identities as the 1930s studio executive Fredrick Stasvick and later as the 1973 talk-show host Brad Donovan.

Jessi Sedon-Essad's video designs inform and entertain. But an unnecessary bit of set decor on the central playing area created an unfortunate distraction behind film segments projected on the otherwise blank wall.

With a show that spans seven decades, uses multiple locations and incorporates multiple film segments, set designer Britton Mauk had an abundance of challenges to surmount.

The string of playing areas created across the long wall of the Studio Theatre may have allowed scene changes to flow cinematically; it did little for audience enjoyment.

Arrive early enough to snag a seat in the center of one of the three very long rows. If you don't, you will find yourself seated at either end and distanced from scenes played at the other end of the room.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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