The sequence epitomizes the most rewarding aspect of “Fabulation,” which is directed by Eric Ruffin and stars a force-of-nature Felicia Curry as Undine. Written in a less naturalistic mode than Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning plays “Sweat” and “Ruined,” but sharing the former’s concerns with America’s socioeconomic and racial fault lines, the 2004 “Fabulation” abounds in biting satirical specificity. There’s a Kafkaesque social service office, a Walgreen’s security guard who lectures a shoplifter about the sacrifice of Nelson Mandela, and a Harvard Business School-educated Yoruba priest who advises Undine to offer a wrathful deity $1,000 (cash) and a bottle of Mount Gay premium rum. The sly details sometimes have a distancing effect, but they are consistently funny.
Still, over the course of the play, a more emotional dynamic gets greater traction. As she hits if not rock bottom then Brooklyn-asphalt bottom, Undine sheds her carapace of ruthless ambition and, haltingly, regains her soul. Curry makes this story line pay off, pivoting from withering dialogue to deadpan comic narration (Undine frequently addresses the audience directly) to affecting vulnerability.
Heightened comic performances prevail through most of Ruffin’s briskly moving production, and the stylization suits the story’s hyperbolic touches. All the actors except for Curry double: Roz White and William T. Newman Jr. are particularly enjoyable as Undine’s guileless parents, and Aakhu TuahNera Freeman ably blends sweetness and flintiness as Undine’s not-so-innocent grandmother.
As Undine’s flaky brother, who is writing an epic poem about Br’er Rabbit and oppression, Kevin E. Thorne II gets to unleash some piquant roller-coaster rants; unfortunately, the words in one thematically important spiel are hard to make out. And the actor is vastly less convincing in a cameo as an FBI agent, sapping that scene of vim.
In a directorial touch, white-clad figures wander by between scenes, playing handheld percussion and looking like acolytes of that Yoruba priest. These interludes do hint at Undine’s sense of defamiliarization, amid her new circumstances, but they are distracting.
Designer Andrew Cohen helps the storytelling with his astute, streamlined set, with atmospheric fly-in units (like a PR firm’s severe modern office) staked out in front of a backdrop imprinted with watching faces and African textile colors. Moyenda Kulemeka designed the telling costumes (such as the intimidating white pantsuit Undine wears early on).
Comic dimension notwithstanding, “Fabulation” poignantly captures the socioeconomic precariousness that some experience in a society plagued by systemic injustice and vast inequality. “They give you a taste, ‘How ya like it?’ then promptly take it away,” Undine reflects, looking back at her brief fling with privilege.
With its stinging satirical precision and looming awareness of risk and loss, “Fabulation” is never just a fable.
Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine, by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Eric Ruffin; lights, John D. Alexander; sound, Cresent R. Haynes; rhythm/musical consultant, Christylez Bacon; movement consultant, Rashida Bumbray; properties, Willow Watson. With Carlos Saldaña, Lauryn Simone and James Whalen. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Tickets: $20-$65. Through Sept. 22 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. 202-399-7993 or mosaictheater.org.