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Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine

Theatre Review by James Wilson - December 10, 2018

Cherise Boothe
Photo by Monique Carboni

"Can I be honest with you?" These are the first words uttered by Undine Barnes Calles, a high-powered New York City publicist and the central character in Lynn Nottage's sweeping and satirical Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine. Undine is arrogant and impatient, dismissively telling a client that a planned charity event is doomed for failure and ordering her administrative assistant to find a celebrity, or at the very least someone celebrity-like, for an affair that evening. Within the first few minutes, though, we learn that several years earlier Undine had abandoned her black, working-class history to hobnob with New York socialites in Park Avenue penthouses. Honesty obviously is not her strong suit.

It turns out Undine's prestige and privilege is rooted in her impressive ability to fabulate, or tell wildly invented stories about herself and her background. Undine, suddenly faced with bankruptcy, an FBI investigation, and an unplanned pregnancy, is forced to return to her roots in a Brooklyn housing project. The trouble is she publicly stated that her parents and brother had died in a fire in order create a new identity, and now they are all that keep her from homelessness. Awkward.

Undine, formerly known as Sharona Watkins, is thrust into the life she might have led. On the first night in her old home, she agrees to run an errand for her grandmother, a sweet, wheelchair bound old woman with a bit of a heroin addiction. While trying to score some "white lace" from a local dealer, Undine is arrested. The judge orders her to undergo drug rehabilitation, but in group therapy, the testimonials from the addicts only serve to make Undine want to try drugs for herself.

Dropping to the bottom-rung of the social ladder, she experiences a completely different New York City than the rarified, tony hotspots from her previous life. Instead of five-star restaurants, for instance, she has a first date at Dallas BBQ on St. Mark's. (The audience applauded knowingly at the reference.) And rather than being cared for by New York's top doctors, Undine has to plead for a City-assigned OB-GYN through the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of social services. These are trials Undine endures, and her re-education can be complete only when she accepts her family, her history, and her race without regret. As her brother, an Iraqi War vet and struggling poet, raps, "It ‘bout who we be today/ And in our fabulating way/ ‘bout saying that we be/ without a-pology."

Nikiya Mathis, Cherise Boothe, Marcus Callender,
Dashiell Eaves, and J. Bernard Calloway
Photo by Monique Carboni

Originally produced by Playwrights Horizons in 2004, Fabulation remains relevant, but it seems like a minor work compared with later Nottage plays like her Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined and Sweat. Under Lileana Blain-Cruz's direction, the play moves swiftly, and there are a number of very funny bits. Because, however, most of the characters are broadly drawn and the sketch-like scenes circle around a gag or punchline, the play does not pack the wallop one might expect. The play's poignancy and fable-like morals come through in narration — fourth-wall breaking monologues — rather than in the actions of and interactions among individual characters.

The performances, though, are top-notch. As Undine, Cherise Boothe is excellent. As an insufferably supercilious publicist, she is very amusing, and throughout there are moments in which she subtly reveals the character's vulnerability and insecurities. Boothe makes the character's reasons for (figuratively) killing off her family and old identity understandable, if not wholly forgivable, within the cultural and social context.

The seven ensemble performers, who do quadruple duty (or more) playing Undine's family members and acquaintances, are all excellent. They transform themselves so completely it comes as a surprise to know afterward that the entire protean cast consists of eight total. All have their moments to shine, especially Nikiya Mathis as a caseworker from hell and Mayaa Boateng as an endearing and airy cyan-colored hair secretary. As an English professor whose cocaine addiction did not hurt his professional aspirations, Dashiell Eaves plumbs the monologue for droll humor. Heather Alicia Simms, J. Bernard Calloway, and Marcus Callender are equally fine playing a range of New York City sorts and members of Undine's kin.

The design team ably presents New York City's grit, glamor, and matchless energy. Adam Rigg's sets effortlessly move the characters throughout the city, slyly transforming penthouse apartments into drug rehabilitation center community rooms in the blink of an eye. Montana Levi Blanco's costumes playfully capture New York's eclectic style, and Yi Zhao's lighting helps establish the City's dynamism.

While it is easy to get caught up in the fast-paced, vibrant world of Fabulation, Nottage's play presents hard truths about issues of class, race, and gender. As the protagonist falls from social grace, she notes, "The crime isn't being a criminal, it's being broke. It's apparently against the law to be a poor black woman in New York City." It's a lesson Undine learns all too well.

Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine
Through January 6
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
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