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Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine

In Lynn Nottage’s vigorously presented lightweight satirical fable we follow the downward spiral of a self-invented NYC African-American socialite. 

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Mayaa Boateng, Marcus Callender, Cherise Boothe and Dashiell Eaves in a scene from Lynn Nottage’s “Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

A hard-edged picaresque fable is what playwright Lynn Nottage came up with in her enjoyable, Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine that premiered in 2004. A two-time Pulitzer-Prize winner for Drama, Ms. Nottage is in a lighter mood here but her comic sequences have a bracing tone and the dialogue has her customary skillful depth. We’re in the exaggerated territory of Watermelon Man and Bonfire of the Vanities.

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.

Ian Lassiter and Cherise Boothe in a scene from Lynn Nottage’s “Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

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.

Cherise Boothe, Nikiya Mathis and Heather Alicia Simms in a scene from Lynn Nottage’s “Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

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)

Signature Theatre

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

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Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (584 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for Theaterscene.net.

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