Thirty-seven-year-old African-American Sharona Watkins, the daughter of security guard parents grew up in Brooklyn’s Walt Whitman housing project. After graduating from Dartmouth, she reinvented herself as Undine Barnes and later acquired the hyphenated surname Calles after marrying the suave Argentinian Hervé. In between, she founded a prominent boutique public relations firm catering to “nouveau riche blacks” and became an A-List member of New York society.
We first meet Undine in her office imperiously fielding phone calls and berating her assistant. Her accountant arrives to inform her that her very recently estranged husband has absconded with all of her money. So, begins a familiar downward spiral of the mighty. Oh, and she’s pregnant. With nothing, she reluctantly returns to her family to figure it all out.
Nottage gleefully depicts the shopworn situations through a solid episodic structure that predictably culminates in enlightened redemption. Standout bits include her eloquent heroin-addicted grandmother holding forth from her wheelchair, Undine getting arrested for scoring dope for her and spending the night in jail, and a hilariously surreal scene at a social services office that recalls Israel Horovitz’s absurdist classic Line with traces of Beckett.
Veering from campy Joan Collins-style hauteur to heartfelt poignancy, Cherise Boothe as Undine is the play’s electric centerpiece. Radiating vitality, the beaming and expressive Ms. Boothe’s breakneck performance grandly personifies the character’s defensive arrogance and touching contemplativeness.
The robust company who all vivaciously portray a gallery of incidental figures is comprised of MaYaa Boateng, Marcus Callender, J. Bernard Calloway, Dashiell Eaves, Ian Lassiter, Nikiya Mathis and Heather Alicia Simms.
Director Lileana Blain-Cruz vigorous staging energizes the preponderance of clichés on display. Adam Rigg’s minimal yet detailed scenic design smoothly allows the actions to flow from one location to another. Lighting designer Yi Zhao achieves propulsive bursts amidst bright directness. Pop music asides and effects are realized by Palmer Hefferan’s crashing sound design. The fabulous unison of costume designer Montana Levi Blanco’s witty creations and Cookie Jordan’s flamboyant wig and hair design successfully visualize the myriad of characters with zesty individuality.
Starring Charlayne Woodard in the title role, Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine opened Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in June 2004 and ran for 33 performances. This revival is the start of Nottage’s 2018-2019 residency at the Signature Theatre that will also include a revival of her 2011 play, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark and a new work next season.
Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine is a lightweight fantasia dusted with a sheen of societal significance. Its high caliber theatricality puts it over as barbed entertainment.
Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine (through January 13, 2019)
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit http://www.signaturetheatre.org
Running time: two hours with one intermission