Coming off the hotness and the sweatiness of her last play’s Broadway debut, Lynn Nottage, the playwright of the upcoming revival, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at Signature, the recent lyrical Mlima’s Tale at the Public, and the Pulitzer prize-winning Sweat and Ruined, has brought forth, for inspection and un-wrapping, a revival of her 2004 play, Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine at the Signature Theatre off-Broadway. Nottage deftly shines a satirical spotlight on the life, destruction, and re-education of Undine, a powerful and forceful woman from NYC’s black bourgeoisie who stumbles quickly down the ladder of success smashing head first into almost every obstacle, hurdle, and prejudice that one could imagine existing in America. It is a solid and biting comedy that has far more layers of introspective deconstruction then what meets the eye. Especially as it gets its hilarity started in the pristine offices of Undine, swimming in a constructed faux haughtiness applied with the strongest and broadest stroke of silliness, almost slipping into an Ab Fab parody parallel, before slowly finding its reality and groove in the sound and language of its troubled lead’s heart with each step downward.
Like Sweat, addiction plays a prominent role in Fabulation, but this time the lead character, the most fabulous Undine, played with a wise wit by the detailed Cherise Boothe (PH’s Milk Like Sugar), is addicted to something other than the drugs or opiates that a few of the other characters within the later half of this sneakily smart play are. At times over the top, Undine, as defined with an exaggerated presence in her glimmering blazer get-up, courtesy of the fun and festive costuming by Montana Levi Blanco (TFANA’s He Brought Her Heart Back…), is addicted to status and bravado, maintaining a calm public exterior (for the most part) and a hefty distance from her working-class roots. She embraces all that is fabulous, although we can see that it’s all Chanel wrapping paper stretched thinly with unknown strain and stress over a re-fabricated persona, hoping to disguise the deeply ingrained layers of shame, guilt, fear, and rage. Praying no one will see the beyond the packaging. It’s a Fabulation of the highest degree, and she succeeds until it is unravels and the wrapping tears. Then, when she least expects it, she must find a new way to wrap herself up once again, but this time with something possibly less flashy and high end.
After her smooth-talking and utterly gorgeous (on the outside) Argentinian boyfriend, Hervé, perfectly played by the flexible and dynamic Ian Lassiter (NYCC’s Ring Twice for Miranda) skips town leaving financial ruin and the focus of a police investigation in his wake, Undine takes a drastic nose dive down the ranks of the social class structure, from glamorous PR firm owner to sharing a bed with her beloved but troubled grandmother, played lovingly by Heather Alicia Simms (Public’s Barbecue). She had purposefully burned down her family a long time ago, played divinely by Nikiya Mathis (ATC’s Skeleton Crew) as Mother/others, J. Bernard Calloway (NYTW’s Hadestown) as Father/others, and Marcus Callender (Starz’s “Power”) as brother Flow/Dealer/others, and now has to sit face to face across the kitchen table and explain (in much the way Herve has to do the same with Undine in his beautiful crafted confessional). But that’s not even the lowest of low she is has to experience before finding her space in her own sun. She looses her friends, her status, her name, her income, her persona, and almost her freedom along the way down, forcing her into a holding cell, a lineup at social services, a OB/GYN’s office, and a rehab group for drug addiction, each and everyone hilariously orchestrated, peppered with over-blown stereotypes and cartoon characters. This vast array of Carol Burnett-like personas sometimes distances ourself from the emotional core, making it hard to really join Undine in her implosion. We are entertained, wholeheartedly, but not moved in the same way. But each of these characters are facilitated by an expert class of comedian actors who don unique faces, postures, and a parade of wigs, thanks to Cookie Jordan (Broadway’s The Cher Show) to usher Undine down to the depths of her shame; the above mentioned actors, plus MaYaa Boateng (Delacorte’s Julius Caesar) as Stephie/Devora/others and Dashiell Eaves (Broadway’s Coram Boy) as the Accountant/Addict #1/others.
As directed with a flash for exaggerated humor and solid depth by the dynamic Lileana Blain-Cruz (NYTW’s The House That…, Red Speedo), Fabulation finds its way delicately from affected, balancing stereotypes at every turn, to a place of fairly authentic sentimentality. Designed strongly by Adam Rigg (MTC’s Actually), with tight lighting by Yi Zhao (LCT’s Pipeline), and solid sound by Palmer Hefferan (Broadway’s The Lifespan of a Fact), Nottage and Blain-Cruz have created something that feels superficial at first, but with each breath somehow find its its way through the ridiculousness to the non-affected tango of life, with the plain speaking utterly gorgeous (on the inside) Guy, also portrayed perfectly by Lassiter.
The play ends simply, almost too much like many young playwrights penning their first solo biographical show about their growth and enlightenment. It’s touching, enjoyable, and engaging but lacks a connection to our soul overall like her more mature plays. Nottage once “expressed disappointment that her work was constantly defined by both her own race and gender, unlike her white male counterparts” (Ellis-Petersen, Hannah, “Playwright Lynn Nottage: theatre is the last bastion of segregation”, The Guardian, February 22, 2016.) and although I’m not sure this production will knock her out of that defining playground of playwrights like Sweatdid, Fabulation, at least for me, broadened the way I looked at her development and writing skills. It’s as tight and meaningful as Sweat or Ruined but through a different approach to finding the air to breath. “I don’t belong here“, but this whole cast of quality characters certainly belongs up there on that stage.