Saturday, December 22, 2018

139 (2018-2019): Review: FABULATION, OR THE RE-EDUCATION OF UNDINE (seen December 21, 2018)

"Those People" 

“African-American woman learns how quickly material success can disappear.” That’s the one-line summation of two-time Pulitzer winner (Ruined, Sweat) Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine given in The Best Plays of 2004-2005 following its premiere at Playwrights Horizons in 2004. 

Fabulation, however, wasn’t chosen as one of that season’s 10 “best plays,” an honor accorded the previous season to Nottage’s Intimate Apparel. Then again, its excellent revival, vibrantly directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz (Speedo, Pipeline) at the Pershing Square Signature Center, suggests it may have been a contender. 
MaYaa Boateng, Marcus Callender, Cherise Boothe, Dashiell Eaves. Photo: Monique Carboni.
The word “fabulation” has various uses, including being a literary term for a type of modern novel resembling magic realism and postmodernism. While that doesn’t really denote Fabulation, its writing and performance mix divergent styles ranging from the broadest farce to romantic realism, with large dollops of direct address narration by its heroine. 

Another meaning is “to tell invented stories; create fables or stories filled with fantasy.” Fabulation is, indeed, about a woman who, essentially, has invented herself, and thus her own story, but that’s the limit to what might be called its fantasy. Helping her tell the story are 24 characters played by an ensemble of eight actors. The costume and wig crews deserve a shout out for their well-oiled efficiency. 
J. Bernard Calloway, Cerise Boothe. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Fabulation begins in in the fancy office of Undine Barnes Calles (Cherise Boothe, Ruined, in the role originated by Charlayne Woodard), a glamorous, 37-year-old, superpowered, public relations executive dressed to slaughter in a dazzling gold lamé jacket. As the head of a boutique firm catering to “the vanity and confusion of the African-American nouveau riche,” she’s egotistic, aggressively bossy, and speaks with an affected accent.

But Undine is in for a kick in her tailored black slacks when she learns from her accountant (Dashiell Eaves) that her sleek, Argentinian husband, Hervé (Ian Lassiter), who married her to acquire a green card, has “absconded” with all their money. Just as bad is the arrival of the FBI, suspecting her of identity fraud. Which isn’t far from the truth.

Undine’s persona, you see, is a fiction created to hide her past as the product of what she later calls “those people,” the working-class blacks in the ghetto-like world from which she emerged. Nottage’s comedy follows her “re-education” as she discovers the genuine human being beneath the artificial person she’s constructed.
Cherise Boothe, J. Bernard Calloway, Nikiya Mathis, Marcus Callender. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Broke and, it turns out, pregnant, Undine is forced to move back to her family’s cramped apartment in Brooklyn’s Walt Whitman projects. Her parents (J. Bernard Calloway and Nikiya Mathis) and brother, Flow (Marcus Callender), all of them security guards, are less pleased to welcome her back than her heroin-addicted grandma (Heather Alicia Simms).
Cherise Boothe, Nikiya Mathis, Heather Alicia Simms. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Tensions simmer—especially with her socially conscious brother, who’s writing a racially charged epic poem—not least because of Undine’s having abandoned the struggling past of which she’s ashamed. In fact, she hasn’t visited in 14 years, and even changed her name from Sharona Watkins to one inspired by Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. 
Company of Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Things come to a boil when, despite her aversion to dope, she’s inveigled by her grandmother into scoring some. This leads to her arrest, incarceration, faked rehab, romance, and childbirth.  
Ian Lassiter, Cherise Boothe. Photo: Monique Carboni.
The episodic action, in two acts lasting about two hours, moves rapidly on Adam Riggs’s flexible set, expertly lit by Yi Zhao, with the many characters clearly delineated by Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes (apart from one overly exaggerated one seen early in the show) and Cookie Jordan’s perfect, character-defining wigs.
Heather Alicia Simms, Cherise Boothe. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Moments of true feeling, even of sentimentality, now and then intrude, but the play’s overall tone is comedy bordering on farce, not something for which the normally serious Nottage is known. Her Fabulation characters sometimes suggest the caricatures in Tyler Perry movies, and many reviews point to the play’s hilarity.
Heather Alicia Simms, Cherise Boothe, Marcus Callender, Dashiell Eaves, J. Bernard Calloway. Photo: Monique Carboni.
If the humor were less cartoonish, I might have concurred with those assessments. Still, I did appreciate several sketch-like scenes, like the one in which Undine runs into a pair of childhood friends (and former Double Dutch champs), whose current status contrasts with hers. Another noteworthy example shows her crashing headlong into the social services bureaucracy, a scene eerily reminiscent of one a friend of mine recently had at the DMV.
Nikiya Mathis, Cherise Boothe, MaYaa Boateng. Photo: Monique Carboni.
There’s no disputing the excellence of the versatile ensemble (which includes a wonderful MaYaa Boateng) nor the splendidly realized Undine of Cherise Boothe. Tall and svelte, she has the right bearing and emotional dynamics as the over-the-top PR powerhouse but also captures Undine’s pride, defiance, and vulnerability after she hits the skids.
Cherise Boothe, Ian Lassiter, and company. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Fabulation is the first in a series of Lynn Nottage plays that will mark her residency at the Signature this season. To which one might say, “Fabulous.”


Pershing Square Signature Center/Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through January 13