Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine

Self-made woman bumps roughly down the social ladder in this lively satiric fable from Lynn Nottage. The playwright's "Intimate Apparel" was a sensitively drawn story of a black woman confronting the limits of social mobility in turn-of-the-19th-century New York. "Fabulation" is a companion piece of sorts, but its style is broader, its tempo brisker.

Undine Barnes Calles - Charlayne Woodard

A self-made woman bumps roughly down the social ladder in this lively, loose-limbed satiric fable from Lynn Nottage. The playwright’s “Intimate Apparel,” which just closed at the Roundabout Theater after nabbing the New York Drama Critics’ Circle best play prize, was a sensitively drawn story of a black woman confronting the limits of social mobility in turn-of-the-19th-century New York. “Fabulation” is a companion piece of sorts, set a century-plus later, but its style is broader, its tempo brisker.

Directed with an unnecessary extra scoop of archness by Kate Whoriskey, the play trips lightly through its soapy, riches-to-rags scenario. It never peers too deeply into the psyche of the beleaguered Undine Barnes Calles (Charlayne Woodard), a newly minted member of New York’s haute black bourgeoisie who is forced off Fifth Avenue and back onto the mean streets she left behind when her trophy husband takes off with all her money.

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Nor does Nottage choose to dwell at length on her pointed observations about the fragile perches of ambitious black Americans in the social hierarchy, settling instead on a sketch-comedy style just this side of the Wayans brothers.

But for all its sitcomic simplicities, the play is clever and consistently entertaining, stocked with funny set pieces deftly played by a zesty ensemble cast. And it doesn’t moralize too heavily over the price Undine pays for abandoning the emotional bonds of her past in the pursuit of a more presentable future.

Woodard, a versatile actress with a naturally commanding stage presence, unleashes the full force of her exuberance in the play’s opening scene. Undine, who runs her own PR and event-planning firm, is having a particularly tough day in the celebrity-wrangling trenches. “Five years ago you could get away with half-glasses of Chardonnay and a musical theater star, but not today,” she lectures a client in smooth, silky tones. “Generosity doesn’t come cheaply. You’re competing with heifers and amputees.”

But Undine’s busy day comes to an abrupt end, as does her blossoming career, when her accountant arrives to inform her that her South American husband has hopscotched, along with all her money. He has, however, left behind a goody bag. Fleeing to the emergency room after an anxiety attack she grandly assumes is a more significant cardiac incident (“Anxiety happens to weepy people on television newsmagazines,” she sniffs to the nurse), Undine learns she’s pregnant.

Suddenly, this gleaming advertisement for upward mobility, African-American-style, finds herself transformed into a less glamorous stereotype: the single black mother caught in the self-perpetuating cycle of economic distress. “I’m on the verge of becoming a statistic,” Undine wails.

She is, somewhat improbably, forced to return to the lower-middle-class family home in Brooklyn, where she is soon being hailed on the street by old friends who remember her as Sharona. (Undine had officially dispatched her relatives to the flames years before in a magazine profile describing the tragic fire that conveniently consumed her deprived past.)

The play’s early scenes, which present Undine and a fellow arriviste from the lower classes, Allison (Saidah Arrika Ekulona, fearsomely funny in several roles), as African-American soul sisters of Patsy and Eddie from “Absolutely Fabulous,” are played in a deliberately shrill tone that is way too ripe for the intimate confines of Playwrights Horizons’ second stage. You want to turn down the volume even on the ever-alluring Woodard.

But as Undine embarks on Nottage’s clever inversion of a fish-out-of-water scenario — a reverse-angle photo of a girl from the ‘hood making humbling faux pas among her social betters — the play settles on a gently satiric tone that allows us to catch glimpses of the complicated human beings shackled by circumstance to their cliched roles in American culture. Undine’s entire family works as security guards, for example, but her brother is an aspiring poet penning denunciations of social stigmatism. The intimidating characters Undine shares a cell with one night have surprising stories to go with their rap sheets.

Nottage sometimes stretches a little too far into absurdity to subvert stereotype — the wheelchair-bound grandma addicted to heroin, for example. And at times the lessons learned by Undine stray too close to well-worn cliches — there’s even a whiff of good ol’ “Imitation of Life” in the later, confessional moments: Instead of shamefully “passing” for white, Sharona was passing for high-born.

But the play’s snappy pacing and episodic narrative ensure that neither its cartoonish moments nor its sentimental asides drag the play down. And Woodard is always a naturally engaging presence, radiating warmth even when Undine is at her most preposterous. In fact, both the playwright and the actress bravely refuse to abandon their respect for the heroine’s displeasure with her humble roots. Nottage allows Undine to retain her acerbic sense of dismay even as she regains her moral grounding.

In the gritty world she is forced to return to, the character’s elegant bearing and crisp elocution become emblems not of her pretensions but of her dignity. In one of the play’s most boisterously funny sequences, Nottage even hints that Undine’s high-handed attitude toward a maliciously unhelpful social-services worker is a victory for civil rights. The sneaky little moral: Sometimes snobbery can be a vehicle for social justice.

Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine

Playwrights Horizons, Peter Jay Sharp Theater; 96 seats; $35

Production: A Playwrights Horizons presentation of a play in two acts by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Kate Whoriskey.

Creative: Sets, Walt Spangler; costumes, Kaye Voyce; lighting, David Weiner; sound, Ken Travis; production stage manager, Gillian Duncan. Artistic director, Tim Sanford. Opened, reviewed June 13, 2004. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.

Cast: Undine Barnes Calles - Charlayne WoodardWith: Melle Powers, Stephen Kunken, Daniel Breaker, Robert Montano, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Keith Randolph Smith.

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