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All Fall Down

A Series of Calamities Forces a Successful Woman to Confront Her Past

Crystal Anne Dickinson (left) kicks for joy as Maria-Christina Oliveras looks on.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 2/18/2009

Fabulation or, the Re-Education of Undine By Lynn Nottage

Through March 8 at Center Stage

Fabulation, the dictionary says, is the process of taking real people and real events and exaggerating them until they begin to resemble fables or fairy tales. That's what playwright Lynn Nottage has done with somewhat mixed results in her new play, Fabulation or, The Re-education of Undine. Nottage takes Undine Barnes Calles, an American success story who has climbed from dire poverty to fashionable wealth, and sends her down the rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland.

The lights first come up on Undine (Natalie Venetia Belcon) as she prowls her Manhattan office, handsomely appointed in gray brick with a teak desk, jabbering into her Bluetooth phone about her publicity for an upcoming high-society charity affair. Dressed in a white jacket over a brown dress with her hair severely pulled back into a bulbous ponytail, she looks as fabulous as her clients. When she berates her assistant for not finding a sufficiently high-wattage celebrity for the event, Undine acts as if she owns the world and expects it to do her bidding.

In the middle of Undine's temper tantrum, her accountant barges in to the office. He has bad news: Her husband Herve has emptied their joint bank account and has disappeared. Her credit cards have been cancelled, and she has $47.50 to her name. Moreover, the FBI is investigating her for fraud. When Undine collapses from the shock, she is rushed to the hospital where she learns that she is pregnant.

Soon, she is back in her office where a repo company is hauling away every stick of furniture and equipment. Her best friend gives the suddenly impoverished Undine the brush-off, and the now homeless, unemployed woman has no choice but to take the subway to the Brooklyn housing projects where her parents, brother, and grandmother still live. Grandma, it turns out, has a heroin habit, and when Undine agrees to go out and buy a bag, she is arrested and hauled before a judge.

It's a dizzying fall from grace, and its fabulated hyperbole is what makes it so fun to watch. It's Chaucer's story of Constance the shipwrecked princess combined with the Bible's story of Job and Voltaire's tale of Candide. There's something inherently dramatic in watching the powerful become powerless, the comfortable become uncomfortable, all their assumptions shattered. To watch Belcon trade in her designer dresses for a purple sweatshirt as Undine sits in a molded plastic chair at a drug-counseling session or stands in line at a social-services agency is to understand how easily one way of life can become another.

Nottage does a good job at registering Undine's shock and readjustment. The playwright has a flair for language, whether giving snippets from the epic poem about Br'er Rabbit being written by Undine's brother, the incantation of a Harvard-educated Yoruba priest, or the group-therapy confession of a crackhead. Nottage has a knack for poking affectionate fun at these characters even as she respects their poetic aspirations.

She's less successful, however, at constructing dramatic dialogue. It's as if Nottage doesn't trust her audience to be smart enough to get the implications of back-and-forth conversation, for she is constantly spelling out the message. Far too often, Undine speaks directly to the audience--sometimes while she's talking to another character--to explain what she's feeling and thinking. At times it feels as if the other characters are there just to illustrate points in her autobiographical monologue and not to engage her in a real drama.

This direct-address approach might have worked better if Undine had been played by a larger-than-life charismatic actress such as Kelly Taffe, who salvaged Nottage's Crumbs from the Table of Joy at Center Stage in 2006. Accomplished at naturalism, Belcon is always believable as Undine, but believability is not what this exaggerated fable needs. In fact, it's the supporting performers who get past naturalism to turn their characters--such as Crystal Dickinson's former double-dutch jump-rope champion or Roberto Montano's seductive Argentinean socialite--into the kind of fantastic personages you remember from a fairy tale.

When the big climactic moment arrives, as her family asks the heroine why she changed her name from Sharona Watkins to Undine Calles and why she told a reporter that her family had all died in a fire, the questions seem more intellectually intriguing than emotionally charged. Nottage has spent so much time on Undine's interior monologues that the pain she caused her family hasn't registered on us anymore than on her.

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