As a director, Cox’s elegant work on Gloucester Stage Company’s “Tiny Beautiful Things” earned her an Elliot Norton Award from the Boston Theater Critics Association this year.
She now stars as a high-flying, high-powered New York publicist who makes a crashing but revealing landing in Lynn Nottage’s “Fabulation or, The Re-Education of Undine” at Boston’s Lyric Stage Company.
Cox’s vibrant stage presence and Dawn M. Simmons’ forceful direction help “Fabulation” overcome its flaws.
At its core, “Fabulation” is a parable about status hunger and the horrible things it can make ambitious people do, about accepting your actions and the character flaws that gave rise to those actions, and about the possibility of emerging as a better person. person at the end of that painful journey.
Heavy stuff, but Nottage, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes (for “Ruined” and “Sweat”), has framed 2004’s “Fabulation” as a satire. His wit and gift for expressive language ensure that he is lively. But I still found myself at some points wondering if the play could have worked better as a straight drama. It’s when “Fabulation” operates in a deadly serious vein that tears below the surface of the issues it raises; that’s when its impact registers most strongly.
For 37-year-old Undine (Cox), her “re-education” begins with Tony Manhattan’s humble return to the Brooklyn housing project where she grew up and where her parents (Shani Farrell and Damon Singletary), brother Flow (a vivid Sharmarke Yusuf ) and her grandmother (Dayenne CB Walters) are still alive.
They haven’t seen her in over a dozen years. Seeking to sever ties with the past and with her working-class family while down the path of upward mobility and amassing high-class friends, Undine changed her name from Sharona and allowed an error in an article written about her in the magazine Black Enterprise: that his family died in a fire, to be left uncorrected. In short, she has betrayed them.
But then she learns that her affable and charming husband, Hervé (a Jaime José Hernández winner), has been systematically embezzling money from the business she has worked so hard to build. Hervé, now missing, has left Undine not only penniless but also pregnant, the FBI is just around the corner, and the once-business star has become an outcast in the social circles he fought so hard to break into. .
“It’s apparently a crime to be a broke black woman in New York City,” she observes with a combination of gruffness and acidity.
Undine’s downward spiral sends her back to Brooklyn. Her mother, father and brother work as security guards; As for her grandmother, Undine is shocked to learn that she has developed a heroin habit. Undine’s family has not forgotten her abandonment; will they forgive her? I would have liked to see a fuller exploration of the dynamics within that tangled question, and a fuller focus on the family itself, so that they register more clearly.
Not without reason, however, Nottage wants to send Undine on a larger odyssey that reacquaints her with what daily existence is like away from her former life of privilege. When Undine reluctantly agrees to buy “white lace” for a neighborhood drug dealer’s grandmother, she ends up getting arrested, jailed, and eventually sentenced to six months of mandatory drug counseling.
Along the way, “Fabulation” highlights what poor and marginalized people have to go through, how abruptly their lives can change, and how maddening are the obstacles presented by the bureaucracies of agencies ostensibly created to help them.
Undine learns, for example, 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 services caseworker who takes an almost sadistic glee in wielding the power she has to make vulnerable people 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 (Hernandez), a recovering addict.
As a romantic interest, Guy is a bit too perfect and the ending of “Fabulation” a bit too tidy. But there is no denying that he warms the heart. He feels like a homecoming.
FABULATION OR THE REEDUCATION OF UNDINE
Artwork by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Dawn M. Simmons. Presented by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Until October 9. $15-$80. 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com
Don Aucoin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.