The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 30, $35; through January 13, $35-$60
To kick off her residency at the Signature Theatre, Lynn Nottage has pulled out her 2004 comedy, Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine, which has been extended at the Linney through January 13. Best known for the two plays that earned her Pulitzer Prizes — 2009’s Ruined, about sexually abused women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and 2016’s Sweat, which explores economic strife in a dying Pennsylvania factory town — Nottage takes a different route in Fabulation, a consistently very, very funny play, but, like her later works, it also faces such issues as race, gender, and class head-on. Cherise Boothe stars as Undine, a highly motivated, high-powered businesswoman who thinks she has made it, with her own posh boutique public relations firm in Manhattan that, she tells the audience directly, “caters to the vanity and confusion of the African American nouveau riche,” and a hot husband, Hervé (Ian Lassiter), to escort her to just the right parties. But when Hervé cleans out her bank account and disappears, Undine is forced to go back to the family she abandoned fourteen years earlier, when she was Sharona Watkins living in the Walt Whitman Houses in Brooklyn. Her mother (Nikiya Mathis), father (J. Bernard Calloway), brother (Marcus Callender), and grandmother (Heather Alicia Simms) are not exactly thrilled to see her, but blood is blood, so they take her in, and she is soon overwhelmed by all she had fought to leave behind as she battles various addictions and anxieties.
Fabulation is reminiscent of John Landis’s Trading Places, the 1983 comedy in which an upper-class white snob (Dan Aykroyd) gets an unexpected comeuppance when two old white brokers (Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy) take everything away from him and give it all to a black man who has nothing (Eddie Murphy). Sharona tried extremely hard to get away from her past in the projects, creating a supposedly tony life as Undine — her chosen name evokes ambitious social climber Undine Spragg from Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country — but she learns some valuable lessons once back home; it’s no coincidence that both her parents work in security, something she desperately needs on several levels. But Nottage (Mlima’s Tale, Intimate Apparel) and director Lileana Blain-Cruz (The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, Actually) keep the belly laughs coming as Undine reevaluates who she is and where she came from.
In a role originated by Charlayne Woodard at Playwrights Horizons, Boothe (Ruined, When We Were Young and Unafraid) is, well, fabulous as Undine, beautifully handling her character’s fast fall from grace and her frantic desire to get back up again, if she possibly can ever face reality. The rest of the cast — MaYaa Boateng, Dashiell Eaves, Lassiter, Mathis, and Simms — excels in multiple small roles that represent and challenge the notion of black stereotypes with humor that is not meant to make the audience uncomfortable; Mathis and Boateng are a hoot, quickly changing characters and some pretty choice outfits, while Eaves switches among several white dudes with jocularity. (The costumes are by Montana Levi Blanco, with set design by Adam Rigg.) Nottage will follow up her Signature residency with a revival of her 2011 comedy, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, and a brand-new comedy as well; Fabulation is a fab start.