During her consistently impressive career in Boston theater, one of Lyndsay Allyn Cox’s trademarks has been versatility — a quality that, like consistency, is sometimes underrated.
As a performer, Cox has proven adroit at comedy or drama or plays that live in the spaces between the two, as so many works of the stage do nowadays.
As a director, Cox’s stylish work on Gloucester Stage Company’s “Tiny Beautiful Things” earned her an Elliot Norton Award this year from the Boston Theater Critics Association.
Now she’s starring as a high-flying, high-powered New York publicist brought crashingly but eye-openingly down to earth in Lynn Nottage’s “Fabulation or, The Re-Education of Undine” at Lyric Stage Company of Boston.
Cox’s vibrant stage presence and the brisk direction by Dawn M. Simmons help to power “Fabulation” past its flaws.
In essence, “Fabulation” is a parable about status hunger and the awful things it can make ambitious people do, about coming to terms with your actions and the character flaws that gave rise to those actions, and about the possibility of emerging as a better person at the end of that bruising journey.
Heavy stuff, but Nottage, the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes (for “Ruined” and “Sweat”), has structured the 2004 “Fabulation” as a satire. Her wit and gift for expressive language ensure it’s a lively one. But I still found myself at some points wondering if the play might have worked better as a straight-up drama. It is when “Fabulation” operates in a dead-serious vein that it wrenches you beneath the surface of the issues it raises; that’s when its impact registers most forcefully.
For 37-year-old Undine (Cox), her “re-education” begins with a humbling 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 vivid Sharmarke Yusuf), and grandmother (Dayenne CB Walters) still live.
They have not seen her for more than a dozen years. Intent on severing ties with the past and with her working-class family as she traveled the path of upward mobility and accumulated upscale friends, Undine has changed her name from Sharona and allowed a mistake in an article written about her in Black Enterprise magazine — that her family died in a fire — to go uncorrected. In short, she has betrayed them.
But then she learns that her suavely charming husband, Hervé (a winning Jaime José Hernández), has been systematically embezzling money from the business she has painstakingly built. The now-disappeared Hervé has left Undine not just penniless but pregnant, the FBI is on her doorstep, and the one-time entrepreneurial star has become a pariah in the social circles she battled so hard to get into.
“Apparently it is a crime to be a broke Black woman in New York City,” she observes with a combination of rue and acid.
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 startled to learn that she has developed a heroin habit. Undine’s family has not forgotten her neglect; will they forgive her? I’d have liked to see a fuller exploration of the dynamics within that tangled question, and a fuller focus on the family itself, so they register more distinctly.
Not unreasonably, though, Nottage wants to send Undine through a wider odyssey that reacquaints her with what daily existence is like far from her erstwhile life of privilege. When Undine reluctantly agrees to buy “white lace” for grandma from a neighborhood dealer, she ends up getting arrested, jailed, and eventually sentenced to six months of mandatory drug counseling.
Along the way, “Fabulation” underscores what poor and marginalized people have to go through, how abruptly their lives can be upended, and how maddening are the obstacles thrown up by the bureaucracies of agencies ostensibly created to help them.
Undine learns, for instance, how hard 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 near-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 (Hernández), a recovering addict.
As a romantic interest, Guy is a tad too perfect, and the ending of “Fabulation” a bit too tidy. But there’s no denying it warms the heart. It feels like a homecoming.
FABULATION OR, THE RE-EDUCATION OF UNDINE
Play by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Dawn M. Simmons. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Through Oct. 9. $15-$80. 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com