When Lyndsay Allyn Cox first read a monologue from Lynn Nottage’s searing comic satire “Fabulation or, The Re-education of Undine” as part of a class she was taking at Company One in 2011, she felt energized by the opportunity to portray the play’s tenacious central character, a strong, smart, and complex Black woman whose spectacular public downfall precipitates a personal awakening.
Over a decade later, Cox is getting a chance to bring the character of Undine Barnes to life in a full production of “Fabulation,” which kicks off Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s season, starting Sept. 16. Still, there are aspects of the role, she admits, that “I understand so differently now as a 40-year-old woman that I didn’t in my late 20s.”
“I didn’t have a child, I hadn’t been married, I hadn’t been divorced. And in the years since then, I’ve done all of those things,” Cox explains in a phone interview. “I don’t know if this happens to everyone in their late 30s, but you almost have a new coming of age. You become a little bit more confident in who you are through these trials and tribulations.
“Undine is forced to reckon with who she’s become and who she’s going to be for the remainder of her life. For me, when I hit my late 30s, it was a real crossroads, and I had some of the same questions. Who am I? And who do I really want to be? What is the life that I want to have? I can relate to all that so much more now.”
After learning the monologue in 2011, Cox performed it as part of a showcase, which led to her first acting job at the Lyric, Nottage’s “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.” Now headlining “Fabulation,” Cox marvels at the way it’s “all come full circle.”
Nottage’s fast-moving “riches to rags” fable debuted in New York in 2004 on the heels of the breakthrough success of her award-winning “Intimate Apparel.” “Fabulation” revolves around a hard-charging, ruthlessly ambitious PR bigwig whose elbows are as sharp as her wit. But her fabulous life suddenly unravels when her husband absconds with her money, destroying her business and reputation and leaving her penniless, pregnant, and homeless.
Out of desperation, she returns to stay with her working-class family, whom she hasn’t seen in 14 years, in the Brooklyn projects where she grew up. Mom, dad, grandma, and brother have watched her rise and the shedding of her real name, and greet her return with some skepticism.
As her misfortunes pile up, Undine’s downward spiral ultimately leads to a reckoning with her past and a reevaluation of her future.
“She’s been running from who she was and has created this new person. And then all of that gets taken away,” says Dawn M. Simmons, who’s directing the Lyric production. “She learns that we don’t have as much control of our lives as we think we have.”
The Lyric was originally slated to produce “Fabulation” in 2020, and Simmons was in the midst of rehearsals when theaters shut down. She and the Lyric decided to revisit the play this season.
Early in the story, when Undine is at the top of her game, Cox says she tries to channel calculating, brassy boss-ladies like Olivia Pope from “Scandal” and Bette Porter from “The L Word.” “She has to be kind of unlikable, but I don’t want people to hate me, so I’m trying to find the balance,” Cox says with a laugh.
To play her during her downfall, Cox says she thought of the superficial, status-obsessed Roses from “Schitt’s Creek” and the transformation they make over the course of the series. “Over time, you see the humanity pumped back into these people,” Cox says. “That’s the arc that I want to hold onto for Undine.”
The main character takes her name and inspiration from Undine Spragg, another social-climbing woman who reinvents herself in New York, in Edith Wharton’s novel “The Custom of the Country.” When “Fabulation” debuted in 2004, Nottage said her Undine believes that to survive in the professional world, she has to sever ties to her family. “It’s one of the unspoken issues in the African-American community,” she explained.
“Undine came to a realization of, ‘If I want to be successful, this is what I have to do. This is how I have to look. This is how I have to sound. This is what my family background needs to look like because white America will not accept me if I don’t do those things,’” Cox says. “I feel like this play was a bit ahead of its time.”
Today, Simmons says, “We are seeking more authenticity as a Black community. There used to be this feeling that you had to transcend race. But now in 2022, you can’t divorce me from my race, my identity, all of those things that make me who I am.”
Cox identifies with Undine’s struggle. “I relate to this idea of loss and trying to reconcile these questions she has as the play goes on: What is love? What is family? What is being true to yourself? What is it to be successful,” Cox says. “I hopefully infused my own lived experience into how I approach this character, and I think that lived experience is going to produce a very different Undine than I would have been able to do 10 years ago or, honestly, even two years ago.”
FABULATION OR, THE RE-EDUCATION OF UNDINE
Presented by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, Sept. 16-Oct. 9. Tickets from $30. 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.