Wrap your mind around this: a trio of experts of various bents in 2003 deconstructing a 1933 film clip and a 1973 TV talk show with those same film actors as they watch themselves in that same clip. Add that the experts are comically self-important and the 1973 interviewer has the goofy smarm we'd expect of that unfortunate decade, and you have a clever structure for high comedy.
But add that the subject for the 2003 trio and, in a more guarded way, the 1973 interview, not to mention the 1933 film, is race -- just as race also figures in the personal lives of those actors under discussion. That's not just delicious structure, it's resonant meaning and substance.
That gutsy interplay of comic mode and uncomfortable meaning is the heart of Lynn Nottage's 2011 play, "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," now in a stimulating production by the professional Playhouse Rep at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.
And that's just Act 2.
Granted, Act 2 is the flashy one. But Act 1, set in 1933, lays the essential base. In it we see the "real" life of Vera Stark (who is not a real person, in spite of some clever websites "recovering" her real life). Vera is a black maid for "America's Little Sweetie Pie," Gloria Mitchell (probably an echo of the author of "Gone With the Wind"). The intimacy between them looks like dependence but might be something more.
Fragile, hysterical Gloria is desperate to get into a new antebellum epic by hot emigre director Maxmillan Von Oster in the studio led by Fredrick Slazvick (think Erich Von Stroheim and David O. Selznick). Vera has designs on that same film, because there's a juicy role for a black slave, a lady's maid such as she is in real life. Throw in Gloria's hysteria, a flashy black chauffeur and Vera's two snappy-talking black roommates with their own acting aspirations, and you have the stuff of screwball comedy.
Under the ambitious direction of Tome Cousin, it's played that way, sometimes too aggressively. That's mainly true of Gloria, played by Kelly Trumbull as an over-the-top caricature, especially in contrast with what's best in Act 1, the scenes with the three black roommates. These are anchored by the character comedy of the cynical Lottie (Bria Walker), whose comic spit and sass never exceed plausibility.
There's a similar excessive quality in the expert trio in Act 2. Playwright Nottage imposes such difficult demands of tonal variation that it's hard to get them right. Act 1 also feels long, given that it's just setting the stage for Act 2, which is all about Vera's enigmatic, iconic, tragic and ultimately mysterious career. Oh, there's also a secret, which you may intuit long before it's sprung.
What a chewy story this is, opening vistas on America's hypocritical treatment of "race" -- a constructed obsession born of the commerce of slavery, magnified by the bright lights of Hollywood.
And what a fine production Mr. Cousin delivers, with that small exception of balance between the comic and the darker side of Vera's life, a balance the play problematizes already. His direction is detailed. You can also tell he has a history as a choreographer: he might almost himself be playing the chauffeur (actually played with vivacity by Tru Verret-Fleming).
Serving nearly as co-director is Jessi Sedon-Essad, creator of the fabulous videos that are such a large part of the play, not just "The Belle of New Orleans," the 1933 film, but also various interviews and period images, all looking like real archival footage.
The designs of Britton Mauk, Don DiFonso, Steve Shapiro and Andrew David Ostrowski also have more importance than usual, with the play having so much to do with the illusions that they summon. Even the stagehands are costumed as a period filmmaking crew.
Doubling as producer and talk show host is Jeff Howell, who turns the latter into a gem of comic nuance. Andy Kirtland has fun as the director and a British pop star, and Corinne Scott sashays prettily as a black actor who turns herself Hispanic to get work. Ms. Walker's nuanced Lottie is to die for. As Gloria, Ms. Trumbull is good in the movie, and ages plausibly in the 1973 scenes.
Maria Becoates-Bey plays Vera with hopeful energy in 1933 and polished sheen as the older painfully experienced "star" of 1973. She has just the slightly heightened reality you'd expect on a talk show, although she is perhaps too pretty and gracious for us to credit the hard life she's had.
But of course the reality of Vera Stark is the mystery on which the play pivots, representing the largely unknown actors who for 40 years played "characters they didn't even bother to give last names."
I'd call "Vera Stark" unmissable except that the Playhouse and Point Park have staged it in the tiny Studio Theatre, ensuring that you will be lucky indeed to get a ticket. This play with this cast should be upstairs in the Rauh Theatre. But don't give up, there are always no-shows.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.