Fabulating Undine’s Rise and Fall (and Rise Again)

I’m unsure that Lynn Nottage is two or three-or more!-different playwrights. Some say she is-including Ms. Nottage, who’s understandably anxious to avoid writing the same play twice.

But as I see this exceptionally gifted playwright, the same storyteller wrote Intimate Apparel and her latest play, Fabulation . The essential difference is in the form and mood. Intimate Apparel is a tragedy about a black seamstress at the turn of the century who’s condemned to the indifference of history. Her new, more lighthearted play, Fabulation , is a social comedy about a horribly pushy black arriviste in Manhattan who very reluctantly has to go home again.

Fabulation is subtitled “or, the Re-Education of Undine,” and Ms. Nottage has written a wry satire (or moral fable) this time round. But the new piece is connected to the unmistakable compassion and class struggle of Intimate Apparel , with its duped women and romanticized men, its figures robbed of all identity by fate or foolishness. Ms. Nottage is a bit soppy about love, I’m glad to say. Then again, Fabulation earns its sentiment, like all worthwhile fables.

Directed by Kate Whoriskey at Playwrights Horizons, with a strong ensemble led by Charlayne Woodard, Ms. Nottage has a great deal of fun with the touchy subject of overambitious middle-class African-Americans who deny their roots. Fabulation ‘s heroine, Undine-named after Edith Wharton’s big-time parvenu, Undine Spragg, from The Custom of the Country -is in double exile from herself. Née Sharona from Brooklyn, Undine has also re-invented herself as a successful publicist who claims her working-class family died in a fire.

“Can I be honest with you?” goes her opening line as she speaks by phone to an inferior client. “I admire your expectations, but they’re unrealistic …. ” She’s the kind of cynical corporate monster who can say: “Listen, I’m at the outer limits of time and so I’m going to ask you to speak more quickly .”

She’s wittier explaining the secret to selling charity events: “People don’t want to think about a cause, that’s why they give.” It isn’t easy finding a celeb to publicize Fallopian Blockage, however. “I need someone up and coming, young, hip,” she says. “Hip-hop, in fact. On the verge. Gangsterish enough to cause a stir, but not enough to cause a problem …. “

I once worked briefly for a magazine editor who’s paid a fortune for saying stuff like that. (“What’s the buzz ? What’s hot?”) I didn’t care much for the real, awful, assimilated Undine, either. While Fabulation ‘s satire is light, the excellent Ms. Woodard plays Undine too archly. She comes more powerfully-and touchingly-into her own when Fabulation lulls us into its edgier comic territory and our shameless heroine loses everything.

We first learn how Undine ditched her lover-a successful rapper who got “too ghetto for the ghetto”-to marry the tangoing Argentinean con man, Herve, who first transfixed her at a party when she saw him “standing by the canapés dipping broccoli spears into the dip.”

Let it be said that nobody dips broccoli as smoothly as Robert Montano’s retro-dashing Herve. Mr. Montano-an actor new to me-also plays Undine’s sweet savior, Guy, and he’s brilliant in both roles. Herve runs off with all of Undine’s money, leaving her penniless and pregnant, her thriving firm bankrupt. Food for thought there!

“I’ve returned to my original Negro state, karmic retribution for feeling a bit too pleased with my life,” Undine complains bitterly to her society friend Allison, formerly known in Harlem as Tameka Jo Greene, “who aspired to the black bourgeoisie after a family trip to New Rochelle.”

A bit too pleased with her life? Isn’t Undine the rat who was so ashamed of her family when she graduated from Dartmouth 14 years ago that she pretended they were dead? The fun and sketchy games of Fabulation get better from its turning point: After consulting a Yoruba priest who attended Harvard Business School with her accountant, Undine/Sharona returns home like the prodigal diva.

Everyone in her family is a security guard, except for her grandma, who’s a heroin addict. The family thinks-or prefers to think-that she takes insulin for diabetes. Undine’s bro, Flow (Daniel Breaker, in another of the fine performances) is the confused hipster of Walgreen’s at work on a never-finished epic poem. It’s “a work in progress,” explains Flow-“a continuous journey”:

It ’bout who we be today

And in our fabulating way.

’bout saying that we be

Without a-pology.

It’s the heroin-junkie grandma who first gives us a glimpse of what Ms. Nottage is really up to. She imagined, in her old age, that she would have found wisdom and God instead of the suffocating ordinariness of “a perpetually gray life.” “One would think you’d be closer to God at my age, instead of further away,” she says, and so she eases the pain of being half-alive with smack, white lace, to give her ease, release . Who can blame her?

Not I. Not Ms. Nottage. The more serious she is, the wittier she might become. Her lethal parody of the uncaring social services leads pregnant Undine into bureaucratic hell and the spiral of poverty-and it’s the funniest scene in the play.

How Undine gets sent to jail and ends up in a drug-rehab center-though she’s clean-is a more farcical story. But the rehab scenes ring alarmingly true. “I miss it,” says one of the jittery, reformed addicts as the others in the group savor the moment. “I miss the taste and the smell of cocaine, that indescribable surge of confidence that fills the lungs. The numbness at the tip of my tongue, that sour metallic taste of really good blow.”

As Undine puts it: He makes it sound so good, you find yourself strangely curious to taste the joys of crack. “I have now concluded that for every addict that the system cures, two new ones are created …. “

Undine meets her savior in rehab, though she doesn’t appreciate it at the time. Guy asks her tentatively on a date. “Dinner with a junkie?” she thinks. “BBQ on St. Marks and Second-a place I’ve shunned for a decade .”

Fabulation proves, incidentally, that you can go home again. (If only in romantic fables.) Undine’s parents are decent, ordinary working people, and home, it has always been said, is the place that takes you in.

And so the family offers shelter to the prodigal daughter and former diva of Manhattan who once stifled her heritage for superior foolish things. It might be sentimental, but it’s a lovely closing moment when she gives birth to her child with the ecstatic words, “I breathe.”

Fabulating Undine’s Rise and Fall (and Rise Again)