The Motion Picture Production Code changed more than the sexual content of films made between 1934 and 1968. Not only did the Hays Code, as it was better known, ban “every profane and vulgar expression, any licentious or suggestive nudity, the illegal traffic in drugs, any inference of sex perversion,” and other cinematic sins which pre-1933 movies might have felt free to feature, it also restricted the ways blacks and whites could interrelate.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage looks back at the last pre-Code year and the effects the Code had on the life of Hollywood’s first (albeit fictional) African-American film star in her fascinating, funny, thought-provoking—though not entirely satisfying—By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, now getting its West Coast Premiere at the Geffen Playhouse.

 The production reunites from last year’s Off-Broadway World Premiere its talented director Jo Bonney, actress Kimberly Hébert Gregory, the original design team, and most importantly film/Broadway star Sanaa Lathan in the title role.

Act One unfolds in classic Hollywood screwball fashion, introducing us to onetime “America’s Little Sweetheart,” now 20something leading lady Gloria Mitchell, running lines for her latest pic with maid and confidante Vera, whom we soon learn hopes to snag the role of (what else?) a slave, opposite Gloria as a consumptive, virginal, octoroon whore in the soon-to-be-filmed period epic The Belle Of New Orleans, starring Gloria opposite Vera, in the role that made her a star.

 Vera is not the only “Negro” actress hoping to make it big, or at least make it supporting, in Vera Stark’s Hollywood. Vera shares an apartment with two others would-be stars, Gregory as plus-size Lottie and Merle Dandridge as light-skinned Anna Mae, the latter of whom is not above passing herself off as Brazilian if it means getting studio head Frederick Slasvick (Spencer Garrett) and Russian film director Maximilian Von Oster (Mather Zickel) to cast her in The Belle. Also along for the ride (literally since one of his jobs is chauffeur) is Von Oster’s “Man Friday,” jazz musician Leroy Barksdale (Kevin T. Carroll).

Unfolding in the screwball style Hollywood developed and perfected in the ‘30s, By The Way, Meet Vera Stark’s Act One turns out to be only the prelude for a very different second act, the two linked by an authentic-looking post-intermission extended “clip” from The Belle Of New Orleans.

 Vera Stark’s second act takes us ahead seven decades to a 2003 film symposium called “Rediscovering Vera Stark,” with moderator Herb Forrester (Carroll again) joined by in-your-face lesbian poet Afua Assata Ejobo (Dandridge) and Golden Age film buff Carmen Levy-Green (Gregory). When Forrester cuts to a 1973 video of “Vera Stark’s last interview,” which the then 60something Vera shot with Mike Douglas/Dick Cavett stand-in Brad Donovan (Garrett), the projection screen rises to reveal Donovan, Rod Stewart-esque British rock star Peter Rhys-Davies (Zickel), and a boozy hexagenarian Vera dolled up like an electric Christmas tree circa ’73.

Audience members returning after intermission in hopes of more screwball fun may be disappointed by Act Two’s reality-TV detour, and though the vintage TV talk show and more contemporary film colloquium exert their own fascination, having two such different acts diffuses whatever playwright Nottage might intend her message to be, and Act One’s supporting characters are missed.

 On the other hand, anyone with an interest in old Hollywood and those “Whatever Happened To?” investigative reports will enjoy Forrester and team’s deconstruction of Vera Stark, actress, star, ground-breaker, and mysterious legend. Adding to Act Two’s allure is the “surprise guest” appearance of a still glamorous Gloria, whose two-plus decades in England have given her a Madonna Ritchie accent, her deeper, growlier vocal tones revealing a lifetime of tobacco and liquor.

Though Act Two ends up somewhat of a letdown after the promise of Act One, it does allow 60something Vera and Gloria to get their claws into each other the way only two great film divas can.

By The Way, Meet Vera Stark may muddle its message along the way, but there’s nothing muddled about the performances of its stellar cast, four of them in dual roles and the remaining two in dual incarnations of the same two ladies so altered by time that they might as well be two different characters as well.

 Lathan is simply marvelous in the title role, revealing the real-life woman behind one of the many African-American actresses forced throughout the Hays Code decades to play subservient roles, and when she comes out as a virtual caricature of herself in Act Two, the stunning Tony-nominee (for Cat On A Hot Tin Roof) makes it abundantly clear that she is one of our best stage and screen actors.

Detmer, Scenie winner for her featured role in 2011’s Extinction and ensemble Scenie winner for last year’s greedy, is an absolute delight as Gloria, both as 1930s Blonde Bombshell and as one of those over-the-hill film greats that used to show up on Merv’s and Mike’s and Dick’s and Johnny’s talk fests.

Together, Lathan and Detmer give us a new perspective on the kind of real-life interracial female friendship Hollywood might have made possible at a time when very little “race mixing” went on in America, whether in the Deep South or in the ostensibly more tolerant rest of the U.S.

Supporting players deliver all-around sparkling performances. Gregory is such a scene-stealer as Lottie and later as a very different Carmen that it’s no wonder the Geffen invited her to reprise her New York roles. Dandridge not only gets to shine as glamorous Anna Mae; the gorgeous stage star’s Brazilian spitfire and tell-it-like-it-is radical feminist are winners as well. As for the men, Carroll’s suave Leroy and dynamic Herb, Garrett’s imperious Frederick and ingratiating Brad, and Zickel’s quirky Russian and even quirkier Brit are delicious creations as well.

New York-based Neil Patel has created a wonder of a scenic design, with stage hands pushing around big set pieces as if on a 1930s Hollywood sound stage, the designer then transforming the Geffen into a Film Studies lecture hall and a TV talk show stage. ESosa’s costumes are splendid recreations of the styles of three different eras, beautifully lit by Jeff Croiter. Sound designer John Gromada and projection designer Shawn Sagady join forces to create various 1930s film effects to link scenes, with filmmaker Tony Gerber giving us the next best thing to actual 1933 film footage. Wig, hair, and makeup design kudos go out to J. Jared Janas and Rob Greene.

Casting is by Phyllis Schuringa. Mary Michele Miner is production stage manager and Susie Walsh assistant manager.

While the disconnect between By The Way, Meet Vera Stark’s Acts One and Two and a somewhat unclear message make the play a less than an unqualified artistic success, Nottage’s latest may well send to you home eager to check out some actual pre-Code Hollywood flicks. All in all, there is enough to recommend in its West Coast Premiere that Hollywood buffs and Nottage fans alike would do well not to miss it.

Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.

–Steven Stanley
September 27, 2012
Photos: Michael Lamont

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