In Colorado Springs, strong production undermined by a muddy script

A fine ensemble of talented actors played a poor hand as best they could in By the Way, Meet Vera Stark running at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center through March 20. What starts as an amusing 1930s screwball comedy slouches into social commentary by the play’s second act, leaving the audience to endure and then run for escape by the play’s agonizing end.

The setting is 1933 Hollywood and the lavish home of fading starlet, Gloria Mitchell (Rebecca Myers), also known as American’s Little Sweetie Pie.” Her maid, Vera Stark, in starchy black and white ‘domestic’ garb, is herself a wannabe actress with the wrong color skin in the wrong place at the wrong time. Between sips of gin, Gloria is prepping for a screen test as the quintessential southern virgin in “The Belle of New Orleans.” Destined to be a blockbuster, Vera is determined to land the film’s only role for a Black woman by placing herself as close to stardom as possible: Gloria’s realm, demeaning as it is.

Clever staging pivots the scene to Vera’s shared rooming house, where other Black actresses are doing day jobs until their big break. We are introduced to the gritty Lottie McBride (Dana Scurlock) bemoaning the limited, stereotyped roles for women of color. Anger, hurt and disappointment has clouded her life, but Scurlock strikes the perfect comic chords recounting the ridiculous “mammy” roles that tanked her prospects.

Enter another roommate Anna Mae Simpkins (Marisa D. Hebert) who is coy, scheming and dressed to the nines for an evening destined to land on the casting couch. A light-skinned Black woman who can pass for white, she seeks out the studio men in power and will stop at nothing to get there. This welcome script inclusion underscores divisions within the Black community itself: caving to the man or staying the course on a path to sustainable equity.

The banter between Vera, Lottie and Anna Mae is among the high points of the show. Synergy, pinpoint timing, physicality, and poignant humor enable these three fine actors to tell the tale and soldier through what is to come — both on stage and in the composite characters they inhabit in 1930s racist Hollywood. While the audience is primed for Vera’s just outcome and well-deserved comeuppance for Anna Mae and Gloria, it’s not that tidy.

Act Two brings an abrupt shift in mood and storyline. The audience is transported decades forward to a film forum of pompous academics spewing psychobabble on Vera’s ground-breaking work in the film. Yes, she lands the role, but it changes her from the determined young idealist battling to outwit the Hollywood machine.

Film clips behind the forum’s endlessly, repetitive banter provide some moments of levity as an aging Vera and seemingly un-aged Gloria meet to tout their successes in film over the decades. Both are garish, flamboyant, repugnant and grotesquely amusing. The play’s production team excels with projecting light-hearted black-and-white film scenes that harken back to Hollywood’s golden era, tracing  the history of The Belle of New Orleans outcome.

Not so amusing and clearly repugnant to the audience was the live smoking—a crack at realism that backfires. At least 10 cigarettes were lit on stage as billows of smoke consumed the theatre. The desired effect could have easily been achieved with unlit cigarettes.

There are few belly laughs in this onerously long play — like an overgrown shrub in dire need of pruning.  Supporting cast interject marginally credible portrayals of a studio boss (Mark Rubald) and André Revels as another struggling actor of color.

Despite capable direction by Betty Hart, Lynn Nottage’s play was, for me, just rather painful. Enjoyment only comes with the realization that you will need to really invest in figuring out where this thing is going, as opposed to simply enjoying a nice night at the theatre.