Undine Barnes (Cherise Boothe), fabulous and successful New York PR agent, is a self-made woman: she was born Sharona Watkins, a black girl from the Brooklyn projects who got a scholarship to prep school, cut off her family (they “died in a fire,” according to her public persona) beyond an annual Christmas card, and never looked back. But when her South American playboy husband Hervé (Ian Lassiter, hilariously channeling lisping Argentine Spanish) absconds with all her money and leaves her alone and pregnant, she’s forced back into the life she thought she’d left behind forever: sharing a bed with her grandmother, arguing with her parents and her brother in the projects, and mired in the depths of an unfeeling bureaucracy that constantly judges the woman she appears to be (pregnant, unmarried, black, in trouble with the law), not the person she became.
Lynn Nottage’s 2004 play Fabulation, or The Re-education of Undine, remounted as part of her Signature Theater residency, tells you right in the title that it’s going to wrangle with expectations of genre and tone: “fabulation,” as defined by novelist and literary critic Robert Scholes, describes work that walks the line between realism and fantasy, blurring distinctions between the serious and the trivial, the tragic and the comic, horror and absurdity. Undine’s brother, Flow (Marcus Callender), has been working on a fabulation for the entire fourteen years Sharona’s been gone: an epic poem inspired by Brer Rabbit. But the title also speaks to “confabulation”: a memory error that produces fabricated or distorted memories, pictures of oneself and the world, without conscious intention to deceive. Sharona intentionally created Undine, but now Undine can’t always see Sharona and her family or her world clearly. Nottage is trying to do something very slippery with tone–playing both ends and their mutual misperceptions against each–and even when that grasp sometimes slips, the play moves so fast that you’re on to Undine’s next challenge before you can think. Fabulation is more successful with its mordant social comedy than with its wispy romantic subplot, but director Lileana Blain-Cruz and a stellar cast find moment after moment that shines.
Undine’s misadventures—from fighting against the world’s most apathetic bureaucrat, to being arrested buying heroin for her grandmother, to being forced to make up a drug problem in mandatory counseling–are limned with both compassion and unsparing wit. Like Alice in Wonderland or Dorothy in Oz, she’s constantly confronted with people behaving in nonsensical, maddening ways–but unlike Alice and Dorothy, she’s facing things that thousands of ordinary people deal with every day, though the world feels no less insane and irrational to her for that.
Undine sometimes falters as a character; for most of the play, she’s relentlessly unsentimental and resists the generosity of those around her, who’ve made their peace with lives she views with contempt, and her gradual opening up to the aspiring fireman she meets in drug counseling (Lassiter again) doesn’t feel entirely earned. The play also reads a little differently in 2018, post-financial-crash, than it might have in 2004; if Undine survived and thrived with a fledgling business in that era, you might expect her to be a little warier, a little less blindsided by it all going wrong.
Still, the individual scenes are brilliant little comic snapshots. And the minor characters all spring to life with vividness and indelible performances, particularly from the three women who play a dizzying cavalcade of roles: MaYaa Boateng (Undine’s ditzy, ridiculously hip assistant, who insists on her sparkly platform shoes even in her “temporary” gig at the drugstore; her “ghetto fabulous” childhood friend Devora, who’s actually a high-powered investment banker; her dippy drug counselor), Nikiya Mathis (Undine’s gentle mother; her faux bougie faux BFF, who’s created a new voice to go with her new persona; and, perhaps most memorably, one of Undine’s cellmates on the night she gets arrested), and Heather Alicia Simms (Undine’s genial late-life junkie grandmother; Undine’s other, less congenial cellmate). Montana Levi Blanco’s brilliantly accessorized costumes and Cookie Jordan’s striking hair and wig design give you instant visual reads on the characters as they swap in and out scene by scene.
Each actor, and each role, is more entertaining than the next (though it’s hard to top Grandma concealing her heroin addiction as diabetes), as the absurdity stakes keep rising. Nottage is also expert at forcing the audience to confront their stereotyped expectations, and reminding Undine about her own blindness to the value in other people’s choices: Devora, whose bling is real and who offers Undine a patronizing lesson in financial self-empowerment; the Yoruba priest who’s a Harvard business school classmate of Undine’s accountant (Dashiell Eaves, the cast’s token white male who plays most of the “suits” but also has a delightful turn as a crack-addicted white college professor); Velvet Whitehead, the neighborhood kook who was actually a mathematical genius.
On the other hand, every time the show slides too close to sentimentalizing the Brooklyn of Sharona’s youth, contrasting it with the artificiality of Undine’s new life—the honesty, the “realness,” the genuine emotions—there’s a sly curveball reminding you of all the reasons Undine left in the first place. Her new, now lost, life isn’t any less “authentic” than her family’s (nor any more so).
Undine Barnes named herself after Undine Spragg, the heroine of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, an self-righteous social climber who wends her way from marriage to marriage looking for a leg up. Like Undine Barnes, she’s only interested in advancement, but where Undine Spragg depended on strategic marriages to advance, Undine Barnes’s marriage–part strategic, part sentimental–undoes her. And where Undine Spragg could never be satisfied, because her desires are all about acquisition, Undine Barnes just wanted to escape Sharona Watkins’s life. Yet here she is, abandoned by everyone in the life she made for herself, bearing a child she never wanted, surrounded by, if not entirely reconciled to, her family, opening up to a possible new love interest. It’s a fabulation, though–is this a comic ending or a tragic one, a horror story or a love story? I genuinely don’t know.