In the often harsh and unforgiving adult world, the lessons parents taught about the truly important things in life can be all too easily forgotten. They must be learned and relearned on a regular basis once we're making our own choices, and doing the right thing is often as difficult as figuring out what the right thing is.
With her new play, Lynn Nottage is pointing a gently accusatory finger at everyone who's forgotten the simple lessons of proper behavior imparted from stories like fairy tales or fables. She even calls her play Fabulation, as if to underscore the fact that her story is the creation of a new fable, one that can serve as a refresher course for adults on how to make it through life.
In telling her own fantastic story, albeit one set in present-day New York, Nottage has taken care not too make it too cloying or condescending. Fabulation - which is at the Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater through July 2 - feels like theatre first and moralizing second. Even better, it's witty and thoroughly entertaining, written and conceived as strongly as Nottage's break-out success from last season, Intimate Apparel, though the two plays couldn't be more different.
Here, the focus is on Undine Barnes Calles (Charlayne Woodard), a successful publicist who watches her once-stable life disintegrate before her eyes. When her Latin-lover husband Hervé walks out on her, he takes with him all her money and social standing, and leaves her broke, with an unborn child, and with no one in her personal sphere to turn to for solace. Undine must then face what's most avoided and dreaded: the home and family in Brooklyn on which she turned her back 14 years earlier.
Undine returns there to discover that her parents and brother are still low-paid security guards, and that her grandmother is now addicted to heroin. But through the travails that make up the balance of the play, and lead Undine to places like jail, an addiction support group, the welfare office, and eventually to a reunion with her husband, she learns about the importance of the simple things in life, things she had buried under mountains of work and emotional artifice.
If Nottage occasionally seems too eager to cash in on the more stereotypical facets Undine's situation, she views everything through such a wry, quirky comic lens that even over-familiar situations and archetypes seem new. After Nottage has her say, you'll never look at female prison inmates, young black mothers, or bureaucratic officials in quite the same way again. She has a keen knack for uncovering real human truth while never ignoring the often too-visible outward sheen of absurdity. That's a big part of what makes Fabulation work.
Another part is the direction. Kate Whoriskey clearly denotes both halves of Undine's life, giving them very different paces, energies, and looks. (Scenic designer Walt Spangler, costume designer Kaye Voyce, and lighting designer David Weiner work primarily in crisp black and whites for Undine's corporate existence, and in bright, varied colors for the return to her roots.) Whoriskey also continually freshens up Woodard's relationship with the audience - Undine's narrating the events of her life never becomes an unwelcome or stale dramatic device as Whoriskey handles it.
Woodard brings an intriguing and vivifying presence to Undine, almost never feeling completely at home in either of her worlds. But Woodard's way of chewing on words and mulling over all sorts of ideas allows her to create an effective portrait of a woman who has devoted her adult life to hiding the true nature of just about everything. (When tasked with finding a famous name to drum up benefit support for fallopian blockage, she declares, "If we can't find a celebrity, we'll create a new one.") Woodard's Undine seems like an eternal outsider, which seems absolutely right for her.
Woodard and Undine are so central that all the other performers are basically ensemble. But there's not a weak link to be found in this talented and comically gifted group: Melle Powers, Stephen Kunken, Daniel Breaker, Robert Montano, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, and Keith Randolph Smith all get chances to shine, and never disappoint. Two of the standout portrayals are Powers' uproarious young mother (carting around dolls as her babies), or Breaker as Undine's brother Flow, who's spent years working on a rap re-interpretation of Brer Rabbit as a metaphor for the urban black experience.
Flow even explains the show's moral after he's once again failed at completing his poem: "Fabulation takes time, it don't just happen." Inventing or reinventing oneself, or discovering the process by which one can, doesn't happen overnight. Over the course of her insightful and often hilarious fable, Nottage imparts that vital knowledge to Undine and to us.