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Fabulation or The Re-Education of Undine
By Elyse Sommer
Intimate Apparel's shy, reserved but ambitious Esther Mills is a protagonist you warm to immediately. The more flamboyant Undine Barnes Calles, whose story is a 100 year fast forward from Esther's, is able to fulfill her dreams on a much grander scale. Like Esther she makes foolish choices when it comes to love, and unlike Esther she wins our sympathy much more gradually.
The staging of one play at the turn of twentieth century and another at the turn of twenty-first has raised speculation that Esther and Undine are bookend characters for a whole series of plays about African-American women's experiences in various decades (shades of August Wilson). This supposition is cleverly supported by set designer Walt Spangler, whose use of Playwrights Horizon's Peter Jay Sharp Theater's playing area contributes to the assets of this production as much as its terrific leading lady (Charlayne Woodard) and the equally terrific, multiple role playing ensemble. The shift from Undine's success-oozing office takes us to a decidedly less upscale Brooklyn setting which Spangler has littered with urban junk that includes a shabby dressmaker's dummy that might have been discarded by the latest owner of the boardinghouse where Esther sewed her exquisite lingerie.
It is Undine's being catapulted back to the life of the Brooklyn projects she thought she had left forever that is the backbone of Ms. Nottage's fable about a woman who must, like Voltaire's Candide, learn to tend her garden -- in this case the garden of the humanity she neglected in her climb up the ladder of African-American Yuppiedom. Nottage's bent for literary allusion doesn't stop with the parallel to Candide's misfortune-ridden journey. When Undine, whose birth certificate actually read Sharona Watkins, decided to cut the ties to her family and reinvent herself, she aptly chose the name of Undine Sprague, the central character of Edith Wharton's novel, The Custom of the Country, about a Midwestern girl whose upward-yearning aspirations brought a rude awakening; just as aptly, her chosen career is as a publicist, a job that often rewards clever fabulating with media coverage, and her specialty of image building for nouveau rich African-Americans like herself. Like Wharton, Nottage casts a satirical eye on the large cast of characters, regardless of class or race. Unlike the more serious Wharton, has created a generally hilarious scenario for Undine's nightmarish comeuppance and inevitable redemption as a likeable, lovable, loving member of the human race.
Not everything about the mix of broad satiric humor and underlying seriousness works. Ms. Woodard, while instantly amusing, seems a bit too "on" during her opening scene that finds Undine perched on the edge of her desk insisting that her secretary must find a celebrity (or "If you can't find a celebrity, you get me someone celebritylike!") for one of the firm's clients. Her descent into impoverished nonentity Hell is a bit too rapid, and the play would benefit from eliminating the unfunniest and least believable scene with a Yoruba Priest who persuades the savvy Undine to part with her last thousand dollars.
The script has other credibility stretching holes -- such as her giving Hervé, the sexy Latin husband (Robert Montano) who tangoed his way into her heart and hearth, full access to all her money and becoming romantically involved with Guy, an ex-addict who's served time in jail (Montano in a witty casting stroke, once again). These weaknesses are offset by the fact that what happens between Undine's being bamboozled by her scoundrel of a husband and becoming involved with the adoring would-be fireman, is incisively entertaining and even the more stereotypical characters are deliciously quirky and human. What happens is that Undine, pregnant and penniless, returns to her family, all of whom are security guards, except the wheelchair bound grandma whose diabetes injections are the family's way of quietly accepting her heroin addiction. It is grandma's heroin habit that lands Undine in court, a jail cell and in group therapy for addicts.
Kate Whoriskey has seen to it that the ensemble smoothly segues through at least three roles apiece. Myra Lucretia Taylor tops herself several times over, notably as Undine's drug addicted grandma and as a caseworker straight out of Kafka. Stephen Kunken is excellent as the mild-mannered bearer of bad news accountant, and even better as an English teacher describing how cocaine enabled him to lecture brilliantly on books he never read. Saidah Arrika Ekulona also displays her comic versatility as among others, Undine's mother, a hooker and as a fair weather friend. Kaye Voyce has provided costumes to enhance each role.
The buzz from Intimate Apparel and the small size of the venue (96 seats), made Fabulation a hot ticket even before it opened. It's been extended two weeks beyond its original closing date, but that's about the limit for its run at this theater. Perhaps, if and when it moves to another theater, Ms. Nottage will have had time to tighten her script and rethink its ending so that it can fully live up to the potential now on display.
For CurtainUp's review of Intimate Apparel go here.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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