‘Fabulation’: A woman who’s down but not out
By Rich Fahey
BOSTON – The lead character in Lynn Nottage’s comedy “Fabulation or, The Re-Education of Undine” stuns everyone in the drug counseling group she has been sentenced to when she says: “I killed my family.”
Undine Barnes Calles (Lyndsay Allyn Cox) – nee Sharona Watkins – hasn’t so much killed them as erased them from her life. Undine had changed her name from Sharona Watkins, ceased communicating with her family, and allowed a mistake in a magazine article written about her — which claimed that her family died in a fire — to go uncorrected. In a way, she has killed them off.
And when she has to come on bended knee back to Brooklyn and become part of their lives again, it is a humbling, humiliating experience.
Nottage, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for the dramas “Ruined” in 2009 and “Sweat” in 2017, wrote “Fabulation” as a satire/comedy in 2004, hard on the heels of her success with “Intimate Apparel.” It is one of several of her earlier works that are being re-discovered and revived, this time at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, where it is being presented through Oct. 9.
It details the rapid – almost meteoric — descent of a 37-year-old woman who has parlayed a scholarship to a prestigious New England boarding school and a Dartmouth education into her own well-respected public relations firm in New York City. She is a hard-driving sort who takes no prisoners and caters to “the vanity and confusion of the African-American nouveau riche.” She also abuses her assistant Stephie (Brittani Jenese McBride).
Undine has an Argentinian trophy husband, Hervé (Jaime José Hernández), and is in the middle of trying to book a celebrity for a fund-raiser when her accountant interrupts to give her some important news. She is flat, dead broke after Hervé has emptied out their joint accounts and fled.
Oh, and the FBI wants to know what she knows about her husband’s activities and why there is no record of her existence beyond the past 14 years.
And the cherry on top of the sundae: She’s pregnant.
These are heady times for Cox, enjoying success both as a performer and a director, winning a Norton Award for her direction of last year’s “Tiny Beautiful Things” at Gloucester Stage. She masters both the high-flying Undine and the forlorn Sharona, and along the way finds out a lot about herself, some of it from Hervé, who informs her that neither one of them is a good person.
Cox’s performance is sublime, but she is hardly a lone wolf here. Director Dawn M. Simmons has assembled a hard-working, pitch-perfect ensemble that takes on a huge variety of roles seamlessly and skillfully.
Part of the re-education of Undine – a name borrowed from Undine Spragg, an Edith Wharton character — is facing the harsh reality that when you are a broke, penniless black woman, the world is no longer your oyster. She finds her former high-flying friends shunning her, especially when they find she is broke.
And so it is back to the Brooklyn housing project she had escaped from after college, where Mom (Shani Farrell), Dad (Damon Singletary), brother Flow (Sharmarke Yusuf) and Grandma (Dayenne CB Walters) continue to eke out a living, hoping for a big Lotto score that would allow them to escape.
Undine learns she will be sharing a room with Grandma, who has developed a very bad drug habit that will eventually lead to Undine making a streetcorner purchase, being arrested, and then sentenced to six months of drug counseling.
There are other lessons to be learned. She finds that getting an appointment for pre-natal care is impossible without health insurance. Getting the insurance means navigating through the icebergs set up by Social Services, where bureaucrats see you as irritating number on an assembly line and not a person.
Nottage’s gift for snappy dialogue shines through in the drug rehab group scenes, especially when Barlow Adamson has a nice turn as a crack cocaine addict who waxes poetic about the joys of crack and how high he rose while under the influence until his inevitable crash.
It is also where Undine meets Guy (Hernández again), cleaning up after a drug addiction that landed him in jail, and incredibly — almost too incredibly – is eager to be part of Undine’s life even as she prepares to give birth to another man’s baby.
“Fabulation” was in the midst of rehearsals when everything shut down in 2020, and Lyric decided to stay with the piece as theaters re-opened.
Simmons’ deft touch as director allows “Fabulation” to flow briskly and she and her excellent cast wring every last laugh out of Nottage’s piece.
Along the way, you’ll probably find yourself rooting for Undine/Sharona to rise again from the ashes of her “re-education” as a better person, able to find a different kind of happiness as she builds a life on a much sturdier foundation.
The Lyric Stage Company of Boston production of “Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine.” Play by Lynn Nottage. Direction by Dawn M. Simmons. Scenic design by Jenna McFarland Lord. Costume design by Rachel Padula-Shufelt. Lighting: Michael Clark Wonson. Sound design: Elizabeth Cahill. At the Lyric Stage Company of Boston through Oct. 9. Lyricstage.com