One of America’s finest playwrights, Lynn Nottage most likely is known best to theatergoers for Sweat and Ruined, her pair of Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas about people coping with terrible times.
Yet another Nottage play about somebody coping with terrible times is Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine. But in the case of Fabulation, the playwright has crafted these troubles into a broad comedy. Opening on Monday in a dandy Signature Theatre revival, this 2004 play paints a sardonic portrait of a self-centered soul who eventually learns her lesson.
Nottage centers her contemporary story around Undine, a successful, high-powered, thirty-something executive who owns a boutique public relations firm in Manhattan. The self-made Undine, who once was known as Sharona but has grandly renamed herself after the social-climbing heroine of an Edith Wharton novel, is smart, self-assured, and relishes living the dream.
Then everything suddenly falls apart one day when her glamorous South American husband absconds for parts unknown with every asset she possesses. Oh, and Undine unexpectedly finds herself pregnant, too.
Destitute, Undine is forced to move back to a Brooklyn housing project to live with the kindly but low-rent family she coolly dropped more than a dozen years earlier. Broke in bucks, but unbowed in her haughty attitude, Undine subsequently makes all sorts of trouble for herself until she grudgingly faces up to acknowledging the grubby roots from which she sprang.
The two-act play suggests a cartoon rendition of a Horatio Alger tale in reverse.
Some of the comedy’s humor stems from Undine’s snarky remarks to the audience. “I imagine the blurb in my college alumni magazine,” she grumbles after landing in a jail cell. “Undine sends word from Riker’s Island where she’s enjoying creative writing and leading a prison prayer circle.” Other laughs arise from her hassles within the social services bureaucracy or amid the recovering addicts in a rehabilitation program where she mistakenly has been sent.
Undine happens to be quite an astringent character, but in Cherise Boothe’s wry, spirited performance, she seems as deliciously dry as a martini.
Seven other capable actors neatly portray an array of different people, thanks in part to visual transformations by way of Montana Levi Blanco’s urban duds and Cookie Jordan’s hair and wig designs. Ian Lassiter suavely tangos in and out as Undine’s Latin louse of a spouse and then in a much lower key earnestly depicts the nice fella who later sweetens her life. Mayaa Boateng, who made such a vivid impression as a teenager in Fairview last spring, is especially amusing here as a spacy personal assistant and as a vivacious entrepreneur. His set design functioning much like the show’s wardrobe, Adam Rigg rapidly provides a series of different locations.
Lileana Blain-Cruz, a smart director who usually is associated with serious fare such as Red Speedo, confidently spins out Undine’s tribulations with a quick and easy hand.
Living up to its mission to explore a playwright’s range of works, Signature Theatre nicely educates audiences about the lesser-known light side of Lynn Nottage’s artistry through this fine production of Fabulation. Early next year, the company will be presenting the playwright’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark from 2011, a comedy that studies racism in old-time Hollywood during its golden age.
Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine opened December 10, 2018, at Signature Center and runs through January 6, 2019. Tickets and information: signaturetheatre.org