As a director, Cox received an Elliot Norton Award earlier this year from the Boston Theater Critics Association for her stylish work on Gloucester Stage Company’s Tiny Beautiful Things.
Now she stars as a high-flying, high-profile New York publicist brought to the Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s Lyric Stage Company in Lynn Nottage’s “Fabulation or, The Re-Education of Undine” with a cracking, but eye-opening, grounding.
Cox’s lively stage presence and snappy direction from Dawn M. Simmons help “Fabulation” overcome its weaknesses.
Essentially, “Fabulation” is a parable about status hunger and the terrible things that can cause ambitious people to come to terms with one’s actions and the character flaws that led to those actions, and the possibility of emerging as a better person at the end of this painful journey.
Heavy stuff, but Nottage, the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes (for “Ruined” and “Sweat”), structured 2004’s “Fabulation” as satire. Her wit and gift for expressive language ensure that it comes alive. But I still wondered at some points whether the play might have worked better as a direct drama. Operating in a deadly serious vein, “Fabulation” pulls you beneath the surface of the problems it poses; then its effect is most evident.
For 37-year-old Undine (Cox), her “re-education” begins with a humiliating return from Tony Manhattan back to the Brooklyn housing project where she grew up and where her parents (Shani Farrell and Damon Singletary), brother Flow (a feisty Sharmarke Yusuf) and grandmother (Dayenne CB Walters) are still alive.
You haven’t seen her for more than a dozen years. Intending to sever ties with the past and her working-class family while navigating the path of upward mobility and amassed high-class friends, Undine changed her name from Sharona and made a mistake in an article about her in Black magazine Enterprise admitted – that your family died in a fire – not to be corrected. In short, she betrayed them.
But then she learns that her suave, charming husband Hervé (a successful Jaime José Hernández) is systematically embezzling money from the business she’s laboriously built. The now-missing Hervé has left Undine not only penniless but pregnant, the FBI on her doorstep, and the onetime entrepreneurial star reduced to an outcast in the social circles she fought so hard to get into.
“Apparently being a broke black woman in New York City is a crime,” she notes with a combination of harshness and acidity.
Undine’s downward spiral sends her back to Brooklyn. Her mother, father and brother all work as security guards; As for her grandmother, Undine is shocked to learn that she has developed a heroin addiction. Undine’s family has not forgotten their neglect; will they forgive her? I would have liked to have seen a fuller examination of the dynamics within this convoluted question and a fuller focus on the family itself so that they register more clearly.
It is not without reason, however, that Nottage would like to send Undine through a greater odyssey that will reacquaint her with everyday life, far removed from her once privileged life. When Undine reluctantly agrees to buy “white lace” for grandma from a neighborhood dealer, she ends up being arrested, jailed, and ultimately sentenced to six months of mandatory drug counseling.
Along the way, “Fabulation” underscores what the poor and marginalized must go through, how abruptly their lives can be turned upside down and how insane the obstacles thrown up by the bureaucracy of the agencies supposedly created to help them to help.
For example, Undine learns how difficult it is to get a doctor’s appointment for prenatal care when you don’t have health insurance. She learns what it’s like to deal with a social worker who, with almost sadistic delight, wields her power to get vulnerable people to fill out endless forms.
And Undine also learns a few things about herself and the kind of person she can be with the help of Guy (Hernández), a recovering addict.
As a romantic interest, Guy is a little too perfect and the ending of “Fabulation” is a little too neat. But there’s no denying that it warms the heart. It feels like a homecoming.
FABULATION OR THE TRANSFORMATION OF UNDINE
Game by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Dawn M Simmons. Presented by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Until October 9th. $15 to $80. 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com
Don Aucoin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.