“Fabulation, or The Re-education of Undine,” Lynn Nottage’s play about a fashionable public relations executive’s Job-like descent into poverty and ascent into moral clarity, is the first in Signature’s season of Nottage’s… comedies.
Yes, that’s right, the theater will be staging three comedies (two of them revivals, one in the works) from the playwright best known for her two Pulitzer winning, socially conscious tragedies: ”Ruined” (about abused and exploited women in war-ravaged Congo) and “Sweat” (about exploited factory workers in the Rust Belt.)
In the hands of director Lileana Blain-Cruz, “Fabulation,” which was first produced at Playwrights Horizons in 2004, seems to promise an over-the-top satire in the very first scene, when Undine (a splendid Cherise Boothe) is working the phone to get celebrities to attend a client’s fundraising party for Fallopian Blockage. Costume designer Montana Blanco has clothed her in glittering gold killer business attire, and given her assistant Stephie (Mayaa Boateng), a bizarrely hip outfit complete with green hair and matching tutu and pom-poms on her shoes.
But as the play progresses, and Undine regresses, “Fabulation” turns into something more clever and pointed than just broad comedy. The playwright does no less than subvert common assumptions about the characters that populate her play – some two dozen of them, portrayed by an impressively versatile eight-member cast.
It’s in that first scene that Undine’s life begins to unravel. Her accountant arrives to inform her that her husband of two years has stolen all her money, and disappeared. She loses her business and her home, and discovers she’s not just penniless; she’s pregnant. Add to this, an FBI agent pays a visit: “There’s one thing that troubles us about this matter…our investigation can find no record of your existence prior to 14 years ago. Undine Barnes Calles, you seem to have materialized from the ether.”
In a direct address to the audience (a frequent technique in the play), Undine tells us she was born Sharona Watkins 37 years ago in the Walt Whitman housing project in Brooklyn, but was inspired by Undine, the heroine in Edith Wharton’s novel “The Custom of the Country,” which Sharona read for a course as a student at Dartmouth. Upon graduation, she not only changed her name to Undine; she also erased her family, never visiting, telling people they died in a fire.
Given the plot of the Wharton novel, the name seems an unlikely choice for the character, but a smart one for the playwright to give her. The Undine in Wharton’s story comes from an unremarkable Midwestern family, who after moving to New York engages in the very American endeavor of reinvention. Her social climbing is only intermittently successful, and she’s left dissatisfied.
The Undine of Nottage’s play is forced to move back in with her family in the Walt Whitman houses. This is when the play gets serious (in a comic way.) Her family – mother, father, brother – are all security guards. But they’re also avid newspaper readers. Her brother, who is a military veteran who’s not recovered from his experiences in Iraq, is also a poet, who has been working on an epic poem for 14 years, using Br’er Rabbit as a metaphor for the African-American experience. Her grandmother might be a sweet and wise old lady, but she’s also a heroin addict. A childhood friend she meets who was a double dutch champion in junior high school turns out to just be visiting the projects; she lives in a brownstone in Fort Greene, and works as a senior financial planner at J.P. Morgan.
In Undine’s twisty journey back through the community she’d left behind, full of often-comic misadventures, the playwright arranges for nearly every character whom Undine encounters — including addicts, dealers and inmates — to turn out to be not how they first appear. To put this more bluntly, they are not what a typical New York theatergoing audience might well assume about a poor person or a black person or a poor, black person. “People think they know your history because of what you’re wearing,” one character says.
If there are laughs in “Fabulation,” the play thus doesn’t stray as far as it may initially seem from Nottage’s socially conscious dramas. One can make the case that it is offering a glimpse into the horror of being poor in America – the lack of understanding by the public at large leading to an institutional lack of compassion. We see Undine subjected to the Catch 22 of poverty, and the domino effect of being poor. Since she lost her business, she no longer has health insurance, so she is forced to seek care from a local clinic, but it requires that she apply. This thrusts her into a bureaucracy that’s a horror show of delay and condescension and worse. To some, this might have seemed like a comic exaggeration. But then there was that video earlier this month of a mother whose year-old son was being ripped from her arms by police and security guards as she waited to reapply for benefits at a social service office –in Brooklyn.
Is it any wonder that Undine wanted to escape her family and her community?
Like any comedy, “Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine” ends on a hopeful note, perhaps even a happy one for the characters. Undine comes closer to acknowledging the unrealized rage, and the shame, she’s felt all her life. We get the sense that Undine will be better off than when she was rich and semi-famous. That’s her re-education. Though the playwright hides it underneath a light touch, Nottage also seems to be engaged in a re-education… of the theatergoing public. And that too feels hopeful.
Click on any photograph by Monique Carboni to see it enlarged.
Fabulation, or The Re-education of Undine
Written by Lynn Nottage; Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Set design by Adam Rigg, costume design by Montana Blanco, lighting design by Yi Zhao, sound design by Palmer Hefferan
Cast: Mayaa Boaten as Stephie/Devora/others, Cherise Boothe as Undine,
Marcus Callender as Flow/Dealer/Others, J. Bernard Calloway as Father/Others, Dashiell Eaves as Accountant/Addict #1/others, Ian Lassiter as Hervé/Guy/Others, Nikiya Mathis as Mother/others, Heather Alicia Simms as Grandma/others
Running time: 2 hours including one intermission
Tickets: $35 to $65
Fabulation is on stage through January 13, 2019