PerformanceWeekend

Social Climbing in Lynn Nottage’s Comedy

The playwright’s protagonist rises to the pinnacle of society only to fall back down to the housing project where she grew up.

Cherise Boothe in Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine by Lynn Nottage, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz (photo by Monique Carboni)

Fabulation, ​or The Re-Education of Undine is a comedy by the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning Lynn Nottage, directed by Obie Award-winner Lileana Blain-Cruz, about a black woman’s fall from the pinnacle of society back down to the housing project in which she grew up.

Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning dramas have dealt with uncommonly serious subject matter for American theater. Sweat, first produced in 2015, seemed to anticipate the spotlight on unemployment in the Rust Belt after Trump’s quasi-victory in 2016, though Nottage’s earlier treatment focused more on women and people of color than on the trauma of the unemployed straight white male. Ruined, which premiered in 2009, dealt with rape and sexual abuse in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Undine, an Obie-winner from 2004, is part of a Signature Theatre residency presenting a series of plays by the 54-year-old Nottage, a Brooklyn native who has won a MacArthur, Guggenheim, and just about every other award.

After graduating from Dartmouth, the title character in Undine becomes a Manhattan party promoter catering to the black bourgeoisie. Her glamorous life falls apart when her good-looking, world-traveling, name-dropping, foreign-born husband leaves her and steals all her money too. Destitute, she moves back in with her family in subsidized housing in Brooklyn and is arrested buying heroin for her grandmother. While pregnant and in court-ordered drug counseling, she falls in love with a security guard who aspires to become a fireman. These developments happen fast. Undine often steps forward between plot points to explain in direct address to the audience.

The characters are caricatures, as one might expect in light comedy. Nottage, however, is asking important questions. How do you climb out of the underclass as a person of color and a woman to boot? Is making it to a fancy school enough to guarantee success? Several elite universities have recently taken steps to recognize the needs of students who did not attend posh preps schools and idly tour Europe prior to freshman year. The New York Times has reported on students who were forced to drop out of prestigious colleges because they had difficulty adjusting to campus life and/or could not afford to attend, even with a lot of financial assistance.

As she leaps up the social ladder, Undine engages in self-mythologizing. She changes her name and accent and learns how to dress like those in the class she comes to accept as her own — at least until she meets her fate. She cuts off her family entirely. Can Undine be blamed? How is she supposed to act after four years hobnobbing with privileged Ivy League students? What is she entitled to? Who is she supposed to be? What relationship is she supposed to have with her family, all of whom work as security guards?

I had some difficulties with the credibility of Nottage’s plot premise. If Undine was intelligent enough to get herself into and graduate from Dartmouth and she successfully ran her own business in New York, as she is depicted at the start of the play, wouldn’t she notice that her duplicitous husband was emptying her checking account? She must know something about accounting and have some practical smarts.

Undine is meant to be seen as arrogant, and indeed she confesses in the end that pride caused her downfall. While this is standard Aristotelian dramaturgy, I did wonder whether pointing the finger at Undine was the best use of this storyline. The premise and choice of characters invoke the powerful social issues of class, race and gender that make success massively more difficult for her than for Dartmouth’s upper class, white, male graduates, but the play’s ending affirms that Undine has no one to blame but herself.

Ian Lassiter and Cherise Boothe in Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine by Lynn Nottage, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz (photo by Monique Carboni)

The play seemed dated in its cultural references: the gold-clad promoter of glitzy society parties, the consumption of crack cocaine, and the rapper as a curious social phenomenon, echoes of the late 1980s and early 1990s. These atmospherics, together with the generally conventional dramaturgical choices, lent the production a somewhat musty quality.

Nonetheless, I must give Nottage credit for luring an audience to get even close to these hefty social topics. Let’s consider for a moment that the theater audience in New York is overwhelmingly white, as are most of the playwrights that are produced. Let’s also consider how Nottage unwinds her tale to make it palatable to this audience, and her art becomes more apparent. For instance, the dance number when Undine meets her future husband, Hervé, is a lovely way for Nottage to slip in some deliciously entertaining, old-fashioned theatricality, just as Shakespeare has songs and dances in both dramas and comedies.

With the exception of the lead (Cherise Boothe), the other seven actors in the company (MaYaa Boateng, Marcus Callender, J. Bernard Calloway, Dashiell Eaves, Ian Lassiter, Nikiya Mathis, and Heather Alicia Simms) pitch in gamely to play many different characters (family, drug addicts, high rollers, prisoners, and rappers), and Kaye Voyce’s costumes admirably help the imagination with these fast transitions in situation and persona.

The theme of radical transformation with the danger of imminent dissolution connects the title character of Nottage’s play to Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine, an 1811 German fairy tale in which a water sprite marries a man on land but is constantly pulled back into her native element. It is an apt allegory for the precariousness of those Americans, especially people of color and women, who manage to rise above their origins and momentarily succeed. Contrary to the mythology of the American Dream, our social structure contains durable racial and gender fault lines and fixed positions of class and wealth.

Fabulation, ​or The Re-Education of Undine runs through January 13, 2019 at Signature Theatre (The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan)

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