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Theatergoers seeing Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine are in for a delightful surprise if they’re familiar with Lynn Nottage only through her searing, Pulitzer Prize-winning naturalistic dramas Ruined and Sweat. This 2004 satire being revived by Signature Theatre reveals the playwright working in a distinctly silly mode. Depicting the riches-to-rags story of a black female business executive forced to return to her roots, the play earns big laughs with its cheeky, audacious humor.
When first seen, title character Undine (superbly played by Cherise Boothe) seems to be on top of the world as the head of her own Manhattan boutique PR firm catering to, as she puts it, “the vanity and confusion of the African-American nouveau riche.” But her life quickly unravels when her accountant informs her she’s broke as a result of her husband running away with all their money. A visit by an FBI agent alerting her that she’s under investigation for identity fraud is the icing on the rotten cake. “You seem to have materialized from the ether,” he tells her. “We have no idea who you are.”
The charge is correct, inasmuch as Undine’s real identity is Sharona Watkins, who grew up in a Brooklyn public housing project with a family she blithely dismissed in a magazine profile as having perished in a fire and hasn’t seen in many years. But after suffering an anxiety attack and discovering she’s pregnant at age 37, Undine has no choice but to return home. She moves back in with her disgruntled parents, her security guard brother Flow and her elderly grandmother, who has picked up a nasty heroin habit.
After reluctantly agreeing to procure drugs for Grandma, Undine finds herself arrested and ordered to join a drug counseling group. She desperately attempts to fit in with the other members by fabricating a tortured history of addiction. Acting against her instincts, she also becomes romantically involved with an ex-con who ardently pursues her. Meanwhile, she’s reminded of her posh earlier life via awkward encounters with her former assistant, now working at a Duane Reade drugstore, and an old friend who similarly made the leap from impoverished upbringing to being a member of the black bourgeoisie.
Telling its picaresque fable via short, snappy episodic scenes, Fabulation occasionally feels too sitcom-like in its approach. It’s also overly reliant on narration. But the play is often very funny indeed, delivering sharp observations about social and racial identity that feel even more relevant today than when it was written. The many one-liners get the intended laughs, but it works even better when it digs a little deeper thematically, such as when Flow reads from his epic poem-in-progress about Br’er Rabbit from the Uncle Remus stories.
Director Lileana Blain-Cruz’s skillful staging never allows the pacing to lag, an all-important quality for this sort of broad humor. Montana Levi Blanco’s fun costume designs, ranging from prison uniforms to chic designer outfits, further add to the fun, as do Adam Rigg’s versatile sets and Cookie Jordan’s hilarious wigs.
Most of all, it’s the performers who truly sell the material. Boothe is a hoot in the title role, leavening her character’s haughtiness and desperation with humanizing vulnerability. The rest of the ensemble, all playing multiple roles, skillfully walk the line between playing characters and caricatures while scoring consistent laughs along the way.
Fabulation follows a predictable arc; theatergoers will earn no points for guessing that its title character will have different values by the end of the evening. But it effectively demonstrates that its talented playwright can make important points via laughter as well as tears.
Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Mayaa Boateng, Cherise Boothe, Marcus Callender, J. Bernard Calloway, Dashiell Eaves, Ian Lassiter, Nikiya Mathis, Heather Alicia Simms
Playwright: Lynn Nottage
Director: Lileana Blain-Curz
Set designer: Adam Rigg
Costume designer: Montana Levi Blanco
Lighting designer: Yi Zhao
Sound designer: Palmer Hefferan
Presented by Signature Theatre
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