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Theatre in Review: Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine (Signature Theatre Company)

Cherise Boothe, J. Bernard Callaway, Nikiya Mathis, Marcus Callender: Photo: Monique Carboni.

If, in this 2004 work now getting a dazzling revival under the direction of Lileana Blain-Cruz, the great Lynn Nottage hasn't delivered a fully realized play, she at least provides a hair-raising title character to keep us amused. Undine, née Sharona, clawed her away out of the Brooklyn projects and, via Dartmouth, has reinvented herself as the most fearsome woman in public relations. In the very funny opening scene, she sits, enthroned, in her severely chic office, threatening to make heads roll if she doesn't get exactly what she wants. Demanding that her cowed assistant, Stephie, produce a celebrity for an event to take place that evening, she roars, "Jesus, how difficult is it? They can send probes to Mars and I'm just asking for someone slightly fabulous." As Stephie quite reasonably points out, it's not easy to get a star for this particular cause, since "nobody cares about fallopian blockage." Selecting a noted blonde with "perky nipples," Undine adds, "Tell her it's an open bar; that way she'll get there on time." Then, getting carried away, she decides to invent her own hip-hop star, who will be "gangsterish enough to cause a stir but not enough to cause a problem." Prowling around, she announces, "This is going to be great."

Alas, Undine's reign is about to end. Her long-suffering accountant shows up to inform her that Hervé, her South American lounge-lizard spouse, has absconded with her money. Her immediate response is to instruct her other assistant to run out and buy her pantyhose, aspirin, and a pregnancy test. But her troubles are just beginning. In addition to being bankrupt, she is, in fact, expecting, her friends are fleeing in droves, and a Yoruba priest -- her accountant's Harvard roommate -- informs her that she has angered one of the gods, and she is forced to hole up with her family in the Walt Whitman Houses in Brooklyn. This last turn of events is especially ticklish, since she hasn't visited them in years and once told Black Enterprise magazine that all her relatives died in a fire.

Undine's parents and brother are security guards, although her brother, Flow, is also working on an epic poem about Brer Rabbit. (Flow is fond of mouthfuls like this: "I am using Brer Rabbit, classic trickster, as the means to express the dilemma faced by cultural stereotyping and the role it plays in oppression on the one hand and the liberation of the 'neo-African' -- to coin a phrase -- individual on the other.") Her sweet old grandmother is a junkie, and, on a misbegotten errand to buy the old lady some smack, Undine gets arrested and remanded to a rehab program.

The best part of Fabulation is how Nottage turns Undine's multiple tribulations into a series of sharp-edged comic sketches, forcing this thoroughly self-invented poseur to confront the mortifying true details of her personal history. This is also the play's limitation, especially in the sketchy second act, when the play is unable to transcend its cartoonish structure. Trying to explain away Undine's failure to terminate her unwanted pregnancy, Nottage suggests, flimsily, that she is farther along than she realizes; would someone as smart and controlling really not notice the changes to her body? When her loved ones confront her with that lie about the fire, the scene is abruptly cut off before it leads to the airing of complex emotions or recriminations. The script also hands Undine a swatch of boyfriend material in the form of Guy, a member of her drug therapy group; a working-class hero who has pulled himself out of addiction and plans to become a fireman, he is a thoroughly idealized figure, like those blue-collar dreamboats who turn up in Tyler Perry's films to tell the stuck-up heroine a thing or two.

The play also has structural flaws that are not typical of Nottage's work; the action is overloaded with instances of direct address, which allow Undine to fill in the many gaps in the plot. For example, she tells us how, when prodded by her therapist to talk, she invented a tale of her long slide into addiction, leaving her fellow group members in tears. But why don't we get to see this scene -- which might have made for a comic highlight -- for ourselves? The action also comes to an abrupt halt in the delivery room -- Undine has unaccountably failed to attend birthing classes -- with nothing resolved. Undine may have made her peace with her family, and it looks like Guy looms large in her future, but how long is any of this likely to last? Nottage is pretty good at depicting Undine's fall, employing the comedy of self-entitled outrage to fine use -- but her so-called re-education is depicted rather too skimpily to be effective.

None of this really matters that much, thanks to Blain-Cruz's fast-moving direction and the cast of eight's incredible versatility. (You'll swear that you're watching a much bigger company.) Cherise Boothe's Undine is a formidable pillar of self-regard, thoroughly convinced that there's nothing she can't have, yet hilariously put out by each new indignity she suffers. Mayaa Boateng is delightful as Stephie, who shares certain traits with Bubble, the empty-headed personal assistant on Absolutely Fabulous. (Undine is not unlike a character from that late, great sitcom.) J. Bernard Calloway and Nikiya Mathis bring real authority to the roles of Undine's hard-working, no-nonsense parents -- Mathis is also a riot as the least-helpful welfare worker ever -- and Marcus Callender pontificates effectively as Flow. Heather Alicia Simms is appealing as Undine's grandmother and as a friendly face in her jail cell. Dashiell Eaves is fun as the fed-up accountant, and he has a show-stopping monologue as an academic in the therapy group, recalling his life of addiction in alarming detail. Ian Lassiter makes a strong impression as both of the men in Undine's life, almost convincing us that Guy really is the too-good-to-be-true figure that he seems to be.

Adam Rigg's spare set, defined by white cinder-block walls, instantly transforms into a variety of locations; this is a smart, economical design. The real triumphs here, however, are the costumes of Montana Levi Blanco and the hair and wig designs of Cookie Jordan, which allow the members of the ensemble to make total transformations, often in a matter of seconds. Yi Zhao's lighting and Palmer Hefferan's sound design are both solid.

Coming as it did, hot on the heels of Intimate Apparel, the play that ushered in Nottage's mature period, Fabulation comes off as a lesser work best enjoyed as a dress rehearsal for the far-more-sustained satire of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, which is to be revived by Signature early next year. It also provides an excellent workout for a brilliant ensemble. As re-educations go, however, it is far from complete. -- David Barbour

(21 December 2018)

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