Stylish, successful New York City publicist Undine Barnes Calles is cruising for her comeuppance at the start of Lynn Nottage’s spiky comedy Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine (★★★★). And in swift order, the catty, uncaring PR maven gets served all the retribution that’s coming to her, and then some, as she loses her man, her money, and her mantle as an upwardly mobile mover in Manhattan’s chic social circles.
The first act of Fabulation comprises a litany of losses for a despairing Undine, but yields a bounty of laughs for the audience at Mosaic’s new production, thanks to two-time Pulitzer winner Nottage’s brilliantly funny script and an on-the-money cast.
Felicia Curry is fabulous as Undine, registering a woman not so firmly ensconced in her so-called “rich and textured life.” High-and-mighty in her high-fashion stilettos, she’s rocked steadily downward by every disastrous blow until she lands back at the dreaded place she started: with her family in the Brooklyn projects.
Nottage wrings sardonic humor and a clarion ring of truth from Undine’s downfall, marking the character’s uniquely awful journey as a prep school Negro. It’s a rarely discussed, but widely experienced aspect of the American experience, documented in the 2012 film The Prep School Negro and in comedian W. Kamau Bell’s 2018 Netflix special Private School Negro, and explored incisively in this play: the story of a poor or working-class black kid who rockets up and away towards (white) privilege, powered by intelligence, ambition, and often, the love and support of their family or somebody else in their corner.
The other half of the success story, told here and in that film and comedy special, is of the chasm that opens up between the smart kid bound for the good life, and the friends and forebears they leave waving in the rearview mirror. Undine, who, we learn, left Brooklyn for a New England boarding school at 13, was just fine with leaping across that chasm with nary a look back, until life forces her to reconnect with the family and neighborhood that raised her.
The script, under Eric Ruffin’s keen direction, captures the universal in Undine’s tale. In every culture, ethnicity, and nation a fortunate underdog can make it big, then find it both hard to relate to their old life and friends and too easy to let go of old ties. But this fable quite distinctly tells the Undine Barnes Calles version of the story, dished up with the snap and flavor of black Brooklyn meets Manhattan glam. Curry rocks Undine’s killer wardrobe, and caresses Nottage’s ripe language without being too precious about it. Her well-honed performance leads us safely along Undine’s dizzying ride towards redemption, anchoring a vibrant, versatile ensemble that handles just about everything else.
Roz White is a blast in a variety of roles, from Undine’s last bourgie girlfriend to her mostly in-denial mother, and Aakhu TuahNera Freeman carries the emotional weight of Undine’s troubled grandma with moving subtlety, while also nailing the comedy in a handful of other parts. Carlos Saldaña, tasked with bringing the flavor and the glam, in opposing roles as Undine’s self-absorbed Argentinian husband Hervé and as the sweet guy she meets while scraping bottom, finds the right frequency on both channels. Nearly every performer is afforded a moment to fly with Nottage’s springy dialogue, and Ruffin paces those moments well. Only Kevin E. Thorne II, as Undine’s rapping fabulist brother Flow, could pace himself better — he flies too often near the peak of Flow’s fanciful, high-wire rambling.
Still, Flow does convey a rightness in his warning to Undine that there’s “no greater crime than abandoning your history.” As she falls downward into an unfeeling system, her history is all she has to pull her back from the abyss. The play brings her ancestors to life around her, in the form of Yoruba priests, gods, and believers — essayed by the ensemble — who strike a chord of wisdom that Undine can either answer or ignore. She might or might not listen, and, frankly, the play’s leanings towards West African folksiness don’t always work, but the Orishas speak their share of truth, as does Nottage in this witty production.
Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine runs through September 22 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets are $45 to $65. Call 202-399-7993, ext. 2 or visit www.mosaictheater.org.
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