Casual theater fans familiar with the work of two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage may be surprised at the broad, sitcommy nature of her 2004 play “Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine,” which gets a broad, sitcommy revival at Off Broadway’s Signature Theatre.
Nottage is no novice to humor, which she deploys cunningly in plays with more serious themes such as “Intimate Apparel,” “Ruined” and “Sweat.” But here, she crafts a satirical, punchline-heavy riches-to-rags story that plays like the opening episodes to a network comedy — one that would not feel out of place following a Tyler Perry jam.
The show centers on Undine, a New York uber-PR executive whose wardrobe is as sharp as her wit. As played with hilarious hauteur by Cherise Boothe, she’s a formidable woman who suffers no fools — until she experiences a series of sudden reversals when her husband runs off with all her money and she learns she’s pregnant by the louse.
She loses her livelihood and the life she struggled to build from scratch. As her similarly self-invented pal Allison (Nikiya Mathis) tells her, “There is nothing less forgiving than Bourgie Negroes.”
For Undine, the reversal of fortune comes as a shock to her very self-image. “Anxiety happens to other people,” she tells a doctor, shortly after she names the pain in her chest “Edna” for no other reason than to get a laugh.
But the real pain comes when she is forced to return to the Brooklyn projects where she grew up, crashing with the family she once told a magazine reporter had died in a fire.
There, she encounters her Iraq war veteran brother, her dope-addicted grandmother, childhood friends who know nothing about her Dartmouth education and the entitled Social Services counter clerks who create a special purgatory for all those waiting in line. She also meets a sweet ex-con and recovering addict who admits he’s been “that brother you cross the street to avoid,” but still is sweet on her.
Director Lileana Blain-Cruz keeps all of Nottage’s comic balls in the air, swiftly changing scenes as the eight-person cast take on multiple roles. Mathis, Mayaa Boateng and Ian Lassiter are particular standouts, stealing scenes with the smallest of gestures or the slightest of twists to a line reading.
In the end, though, “Fabulation” feels both slight and abbreviated, like the pilot for a promising but canceled-too-soon series that might have developed Undine and the characters around her over time.