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Lynn Nottage Serves Her Humor With a Punch in Fabulation, or The Re-education of Undine

Signature Theatre revives Nottage's 2004 comedy as part of her yearlong residency.

Cherise Boothe, J. Bernard Calloway, Nikiya Mathis, and Marcus Callender in Fabulation, or The Re-education of Undine, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
(© Monique Carboni)

The fact that Lynn Nottage considers Fabulation, or The Re-education of Undine (a modern-day comedy about a hot-shot publicist's fall from grace) a companion piece to Intimate Apparel (a drama about a black seamstress trapped in her lonely routine in 1905) says everything about the way Lynn Nottage does comedy. Fabulation, which debuted at Playwrights Horizons in 2004, is back off-Broadway at Signature Theatre under the direction of Lileana Blain-Cruz with a jaunty balance of camp and commentary. Questions of how an identity is cobbled together — specifically an African-American identity — are fully brandished. But unlike trips to Nottage's typical fare (particularly her Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpieces Ruined and Sweat), you can leave your box of tissues and paper bag for hyperventilation at home.

Cherise Boothe makes a gaudy first impression as the title PR executive Undine, blinding us with her gold-sequined suit jacket and power heels (one of many flamboyant costumes by Montana Levi Blanco) as she bellows her way through a phone call demanding more star power at a charity event (What charity, you ask? Apparently no one cares.) Even before she gets word that her shyster husband, Hervé (Ian Lassiter), has run off with her fortune, Undine is instantly recognizable as a candidate for the role of lost soul with tarnished values who will learn a tough lesson about materialism and be better off for it (the luxurious office suite that set designer Adam Rigg builds for Undine is dismantled before our eyes). Think somewhere between Uptown Girls and Baby Boom without all the childcare. And in keeping with the Hollywood trope, there's an extended adjustment to humble living (i.e., a return to her working class family home in Brooklyn) and an unlikely love interest (i.e., a charming, aspiring fireman named Guy also played by Lassiter).

It's fun and games for us, but at each punctuated point along this entertaining learning curve, Nottage tucks in glimpses of the generations-old baggage that motivates Undine (a name she gave herself after collecting her life-affirming Dartmouth diploma) to hide, remold, or entirely reject the family and history that her entire existence stands upon. A hundred years may have passed since Intimate Apparel's Esther sewed corsets for Mrs. Van Buren, but the racial stigma tied to social mobility (or lack thereof) is still alive and well, and Boothe, in the midst of a fine comedic performance, lends some beautiful moments to Undine's reckoning with that burden.

While acknowledging the tragedy beneath the comedy, Nottage and director Blain-Cruz have plenty of fun with the cultural stereotypes that infiltrate this homecoming story. One moment, the play is leaning into them with references to Undine's father's affinity for spending money he doesn't have on lottery tickets (J. Bernard Calloway plays the sympathetic patriarch). The next, she's subverting them, showing us Undine's reunion with her childhood double-Dutching friend Devora (Mayaa Boateng, employing powers of comedic shape shifting for several roles), who remains exuberantly tied to her Brooklyn roots while holding a high-powered finance job at J.P. Morgan. And then there's Undine, a 37-year-old Harvard MBA at the top of her professional game who somehow winds up living with her parents, pregnant with her runaway husband's baby, and going to court-ordered 12-step meetings for drug addiction (I won't spoil what lands her there).

Nothing is what it seems and rules don't apply — a theme that fits Fabulation's patchwork structure, which might feel unsettlingly sloppy for those accustomed to Nottage's efficiently assembled dramatic work. And yet, there's something liberating about the play's blatant disregard for organization. At its core, Fabulation is a quest for identity — a concept that will forever be completely incomprehensible. If anyone were to try to tidy it up for easy consumption, that play would be called Fabrication.

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