BWW Review: An Amusing and Engaging FABULATION, OR THE RE-EDUCATION OF UNDINE at Strand Theater
Lynn Nottage's 2004 comedy Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine, now being revived by The Strand Theater Company, is fabulous. A zestfully-written fable of an arriviste yuppie's decline and fall and, eventually, redemption, it's a knowing look at various worlds: those of high-end Manhattan publicists, welfare offices, Brooklyn projects (ca. 2004, but reportedly not today), Duane Reade drugstores, and drug rehabilitation therapy groups among them. (Like Tom Wolfe, to whose book The Bonfire of the Vanities Nottage's Fabulation bears more than a passing resemblance, Nottage is well known for careful research.)
We start out with our heroine, publicist Undine Barnes Calles (Dana Woodson), at her glittering but insubstantial peak, chicly dressed, manipulating A-listers and yelling at her pipsqueak assistant Stephie (Leiah Poindexter). She is what Tom Wolfe disparagingly called a Master of the Universe. She doesn't get out of the first scene in that mode, though, for then in comes what at first looks like another subjugated underling, her business manager Richard (Nate Krimmel), but he comes equipped with the unexpected power to ruin her day. He bears some really bad news: Undine's slimy Argentinian husband Hervé (Albert Omololu Collins, pictured above with Woodson) has absconded with all of her money. And there will soon be worse news from another source: Hervé didn't just leave her; he left her pregnant. And there will soon be even worse; she's bankrupt and in need of welfare benefits, which lands her in a confrontation with the most venomous, unfeeling social service office official ever to play games with required paperwork (Kay-Megan Washington). Now Undine must move back in with her family living in the Brooklyn projects. And that's where the reckoning really comes.
Turns out Undine doesn't exist in the public records beyond 15 years back because Undine was born Sharona Watkins, and cruelly deserted her folks' lives to reinvent herself with a highfallutin' name and a highfallutin' profession. Now she needs to rebuild the bridges she burned and reclaim Sharona-dom because Undine-ness has collapsed on her. It also turns out her family of origin has some dull but powerful lower-working-class problems, one of which by cosmic injustice lands Undine/Sharona in drug rehabilitation therapy even though she doesn't use drugs. And there she meets an improbable prince of a recovering addict, Guy (Omolulu again, doing a fine comic turn by switching back and forth between moral opposites Guy and Hervé). The humiliations that come with rejoining her decidedly non-upward-aspirational family and beginning a relationship with Guy and dealing with her pregnancy seem to be the unforeseen agents of Undine/Sharona's redemption.
Strand gives this wry morality tale a spirited cast, each of whom except Woodson must carry multiple roles. As with Omolulu, they each seem to be having fun rapidly shifting from one role to another. I especially liked Washington, who in addition to other roles including the aforementioned venomous Caseworker gets the plum role of Grandma with an unexpected pursuit, in which she engages with aplomb as her granddaughter cringes. I liked Juan Hunter a lot as well, playing, among others Undine's brother Flow (who might be in the running for the title of the world's worst poet), and a drily businesslike drug dealer. Woodson herself, in the title role, seemed a bit hesitant at first in the performance I saw, in her character's glory days, but seemed to grow more comfortable as Undine's life became less so; Woodson does the rueful insight bit, especially in asides to the audience, both movingly and comically.
And speaking of rueful insight into one's past, I might mention another work full of it that Fabulation stands close to in this regard, Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles. Heidi's voice may have influenced Undine's. And if Heidi, who grows and maintains her social status throughout Chronicles, had instead undergone the kind of well-researched comeuppance (or more accurately comedownance) that Bonfire's Sherman McCoy had to endure, the play chronicling the process would have looked and sounded a lot like Fabulation.
With this production, Strand continues its streak of amusing and engaging feminist theater on a shoestring.
Four of five stars.
Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine, by Lynn Nottage, directed by Christen Cromwell, through March 8, at Strand Theater, 5426 Harford Rd. Baltimore MD 21201. Tickets $10-$20 at https://www.strand-theater.org/tickets.html. Adult content, alcohol usage, drug commerce and consumption, childbirth.
Photo Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography.