Jay Gatsby (né James Gatz) came from North Dakota. The actress Carrie Wheeler was Caroline Meeber — or just Sister Carrie — back home in Wisconsin. By the time they each hit it big in New York, they’d wiped out their former identities and shed a fair share of attachments as well.
But they’ve got nothing on Undine Barnes Calles.
Undine’s family, way back in Brooklyn, knew her as Sharona Watkins. After disappearing from their lives to become a fierce public relations diva, she didn’t shed them so much as expunge them, telling everyone they’d died in a fire.
So goes the classic American reinvention story as repurposed by Lynn Nottage in “Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine,” which opened on Monday at the Pershing Square Signature Center. The production itself is a reinvention, or at least a revival; writing about its premiere at Playwrights Horizons in 2004, Ben Brantley called it a “busy, robustly entertaining comedy.”
It still is, but the world around it has changed so much that the comedy feels, if just as busy, less robust. Especially at the beginning, when we meet the 37-year-old Undine (Cherise Boothe) at the precipice of a disaster that will start her downward spiral, the play’s tone seems somehow too blithe for the times.
This is when Undine, whose agency caters to “the vanity and confusion of the African-American nouveau riche,” discovers, while trying to book a celebrity for the Fallopian Blockage ball, that her Argentine husband, Hervé, has decamped. Forced to return to her Fort Greene parents, who aren’t in fact dead, she further discovers she’s penniless and pregnant.
In picaresque fashion, Ms. Nottage (who likewise lives in Brooklyn) puts Undine through humiliations that mark her fall while serving as satires of familiar theatrical tropes. She visits a Yoruba shaman-slash-M.B.A., despairs of the down-market lifestyle of her Lotto-playing parents, discovers that kindly Grandma has an unexpected vice. Next floor down in her descent is a drug bust and jail. Last stop: the line for benefits at Social Services.
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The relentless pace of her degradation may remind you, oddly, of “Mlima’s Tale,” Ms. Nottage’s haunting play about an elephant brought low by the ivory trade. But as Undine’s fortunes bottom out, something unexpected happens: She becomes self-critical, and incrementally kinder. Downward mobility proves to be upward morality.
For this is not the comedy of deracination it at first seems; it’s a comedy of re-racination, of discovering one’s authentic self by stripping away the disfigurements of ambition. That’s a tricky stance to take if you believe in bootstraps. To make it work, prelapsarian Undine must be as awful and single-minded in her pursuit of success as possible; Ms. Nottage has said that she got a bead on the character after reading a profile of Condoleezza Rice. That may be why the beginning isn’t funny, despite all attempts by the director Lileana Blain-Cruz to will laughs into existence.
Only as Undine’s enamel shell dissolves — Ms. Boothe is especially good at rendering the change via body language and vocal inflection — do we begin to enjoy her and the surrounding characters fully. (There are 26 of them, deftly dispatched by seven quick-sketch artists.) Her encounters with a pregnant teenager and a stereotypical homegirl now working for J. P. Morgan tenderize her further. By the time she mistakenly winds up in rehab with the impossibly nice Guy (Ian Lassiter, as charming now as he was oily as Hervé), we think she may even deserve him.
In its lightheartedness, “Fabulation” is something of an outlier for Ms. Nottage, though the Signature Theater is reviving her 2011 Hollywood satire “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” in January and producing a new comedy next season. It’s no accident that her two Pulitzer Prizes — for “Ruined” in 2009 and “Sweat” in 2017 — went to works that are fundamentally naturalistic and tragic. Perhaps that’s why “Fabulation,” and thus Ms. Blain-Cruz’s production, feel most accomplished the farther away they get from spoof and closer to reality.
But reality invites uncomfortable questions. Are we meant to understand that Undine’s return to Fort Greene — perhaps a comedown in 2004 but home to million-dollar apartments today — is a salutary form of racial re-education, a way of recentering her blackness? Was her fall the result of having bought into a fabulated, “white” idea of ambition? Is she worth loving only if she embraces being a mother?
Harsh judgments, perhaps, but not as harsh as those delivered to Gatsby, Sister Carrie and, for that matter, Undine Spragg, the Edith Wharton heroine for whom Ms. Nottage’s character is named. They must scratch their way up society’s cliff face forever, or die in the process. What makes “Fabulation” a comedy, albeit one with a bitter edge, is that our heroine is at least allowed to approach her happiness, once she stops trying to be a success.
Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine
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