Confession may be good for the soul, but does it make for good theater?
Yes, indeed. Especially when the author and star is Carrie Fisher, daughter of showbiz royalty, “Star Wars” icon, manic-depressive, alcoholic and astute observer of the Hollywood scene.
Fisher is a raconteur in the best sense of the word. She knows how to tell a story. And “Wishful Drinking,” her hilariously perceptive journey through a world of celebrity and self-destruction, is chock-full of funny, fascinating tales.
It helps that Fisher has enormous rapport with the audience at Broadway’s Stuio 54, where her autobiographical one-woman show opened Sunday.
Prowling the stage, the performer banters effortlessly with theatergoers, drawing them into her memories about what it was like to grow up as the offspring of film star Debbie Reynolds and ‘50s pop singer Eddie Fisher, who for a time were America’s sweethearts—a title that didn’t last long after Eddie Fisher left Reynolds for the newly widowed Elizabeth Taylor. The 52-year old Carrie Fisher, who looks and sounds a bit like her perennially perky mother, is unsparing in her analysis of those scandal-plagued years. But, more important, she is equally tough in examining herself, a complicated woman trying to deal with demons of her own making.
Nevertheless, “Wishful Drinking” produces large laughs. Fisher’s jaundiced view of the luxurious movieland lifestyle is priceless. She grew up in a material splendor if not exactly emotional comfort. She takes us on a tour of her gilded childhood and her parents’ various marriages, particularly her father’s, which seemed to get more convoluted as the years went on.
One of the evening’s more entertaining segments is entitled Hollywood 101, demonstrating the interlocking of many of these relationships, almost to the point, Fisher suggests, of inbreeding.
The seeds of Fisher’s resentful family dealings can be found in the fame of her mother and father enjoyed—and thrived upon.
“My parents had this incredibly vital relationship with an audience, you know, like with muscle and blood,” she explains. “This was the main competition that I had for their attention, an audience. You know who you are.”
But then Fisher’s own marriages also were of a volatile nature—her union with singer-songwriter Paul Simon, of Simon and Garfunkel fame, and then with super agent Bryan Lourd, who left her for a man.
Fisher had her own brush with massive celebrity in the 1977 sci-fi fantasy classic “Star Wars,” playing the movie’s earnest heroine, Princess Leia, a young woman best known for her cinnamon-bun hairdo. And, yes, Fisher does don a Leia wig in “Wishful Drinking” for a few good chuckles.
Fisher seems to have made peace with the role—and even with “Star Wars” director George Lucas, who, she says, provided her and co-stars Mark Hamill (who played Luke Skywalker) and Harrison Ford (Han Solo) “with enough fan mail and even a small merry band of stalkers keeping us entertained for the rest of our unnatural lives—not to mention identities that will follow us to our respective graves like a vague, exotic smell.”
“Wishful Drinking,” which first began touring the country in 2006, may teeter on a bit too long. Director Tony Taccone could have snipped a bit here and there, particularly the “Star Wars” mentions, which seem to pop up persistently.
But no matter. If this is theater as therapy for this author, so be it. “Wishful Drinking: is as affecting as it is good fun, with humor helping its leading lady sort out all her problems on stage.
Carrie Fisher has accumulated a lifetime's worth of good will. This isn't be cause as Princess Leia she proudly wore a metal bikini in "Return of the Jedi." It's because she's managed to somewhat refresh the hoary tell-all memoir genre by combining shameless revelations with acidic self-deprecation.
Still, while the actress-turned-author is handy with a quip, "Wishful Drinking" quickly wears thin. After more than two hours of raspy-voiced zingers and Hollywood gossip -- it's actually faster to read the book this touring show inspired -- you feel as if you've been stuck in a simultaneously garish and cheap boudoir with a garrulous drag queen who just. Won't. Shut. Up.
That tone is set from the very beginning: Fisher, barefoot in black satin pajamas and a dressing gown, enters singing "Happy Days Are Here Again" while a montage of lurid headlines flashes in the background.
Fisher looks downright cheery, dusting the front rows with what looks like sequins. We're one step away from Liza Minnelli, and what follows, complete with sexually ambiguous husbands and complicit use of the audience, only confirms that impression.
But while Minnelli channels her tragic baggage through songs, Fisher is a lot more direct: She just tells us. And when she can't tell us, she shows us slides. And when she can't show us slides, she shows us a lifesize statue of Leia.
"Wishful Drinking" touches on many familiar points. Fisher's extended family gets dissected in a pretty funny "Hollywood Inbreeding 101" graph, and anecdotes about mom Debbie Reynolds and dad Eddie Fisher will get a chuckle out of TCM freaks. It's like the special 1950s edition of TMZ, but hey, who doesn't like golden-age trivia?
Those who prefer "Star Wars" dirt, that's who. But there Fisher sticks to "George Lucas is weird" and "Fanboys are even weirder" basics.
And so it goes, on to Fisher's relationship with Paul Simon, her pill-popping, her weight, her gay husband, her manic-depression. Though she claims her brain is half-fried, the star sure can memorize lines.
By the time we return from intermission, the mere pretense of a loose narrative thread goes out the window. Fisher hopscotches from one topic to another, perhaps in an attempt to suggest spontaneous intimacy. "You have been invited tonight not to look at my mansion but to listen to my furniture," she announces.
You have probably wondered what it would be like to walk a mile (or a light-year) in the hair coils of Princess Leia, the intergalactic pinup girl from the original “Star Wars” movies. O.K., so you haven’t.
But Carrie Fisher has arrived on Broadway with the intention of clamping those unflattering Danish-pastry-shaped pieces right onto your head — I mean, figuratively, of course, though in the case of one (un)lucky selected audience member per show, literally. What’s more, you’re going to like it. A lot.
Ms. Fisher — an actress, writer and sometime heroine of the tabloids — is the creator and cast of “Wishful Drinking,” the brut-dry, deeply funny memoir of a show that opened on Sunday night at Studio 54, directed by Tony Taccone. And for her first-act finale, she surrounds herself with images of merchandise inspired by Princess Leia, a role she created for George Lucas’s box-office-breaking “Star Wars” trilogy when she was in her early 20s.
So there, coming into focus like the last merciless visions of a drowning science-fiction geek, are projected giant photographs of the Princess Leia action figure, the Princess Leia Pez dispenser, the soap bar, the shampoo bottle, the too-anatomically-correct porcelain figurine and — my goodness — the life-size Princess Leia sex doll.
That last item shows up on stage in the semiflesh, and Ms. Fisher, who at 52 has redonned her old Leia coif for the scene, admits she doesn’t have the equipment to deal properly with her made-for-pleasure alter ego. That’s where the male volunteer comes in. And, oh yes, the other Princess Leia wig.
Whether or not you are the audience member anointed to model the Leia hairdo, you will by now have started to see the world through the self-dissociating eyes of the woman who first wore it. Ms. Fisher, daughter of the movie star Debbie Reynolds and the crooner Eddie Fisher, cannot be said to have had an Everywoman’s life. Yet “Wishful Drinking” makes you believe, for a couple of hours, that Carrie Fisher is you.
That’s quite an achievement when you consider the Bizarro Land labyrinth of Ms. Fisher’s very public existence: a childhood disrupted when Dad left Mom for Elizabeth Taylor; a Broadway debut at 15 in the chorus of Mom’s musical “Irene”; the mind-bending fame that came with “Star Wars”; a bumpy marriage to the singer Paul Simon; a reputation as a party girl who could match John Belushi in hedonistic excess; another marriage to a Hollywood agent who left her for another man; and, in 2005, the experience of waking up to find a close friend, a 42-year-old Republican operative named R. Gregory Stevens, dead in her bed beside her.
That last event being the most recent and rawest, it is dealt with early in “Wishful Drinking,” when Ms. Fisher throws open the floor to questions from the audience about Mr. Stevens’s death. “Hit me with your best shot,” she seems to be saying, meeting each question with a bullwhip quip. “I can take it.” But you don’t feel she’s trivializing a tragedy. What she is doing, most cannily, is letting you see the Carrie Fisher Defense System in action. I mean the one that’s built on the transformational power of epigrams instead of pills.
Anyone who achieves or is hit by great fame, especially early in life, develops a sense of a separate self that exists slightly to the side of the real thing. Jacqueline Onassis spoke about this phenomenon, as have countless movie stars. But if you’re going to stay in the game, and not wind up like Marilyn Monroe, you learn to make that separate self your servant.
Though cursed with an addictive personality and, it turned out later, bipolar disorder, Ms. Fisher was blessed with a sense of the howling absurdity built into fishbowl lives. And long before she created “Wishful Drinking,” which was first seen in Los Angeles in 2006, she had channeled that sensibility into wry, autobiographical novels, most notably “Postcards From the Edge.”
I wasn’t a big fan of that book or the 1990 movie it inspired. It had a smart-girl-among-the-philistines smugness that got on my nerves. But if Ms. Fisher had read it to me herself, I might have loved it. What you don’t sense in her books is the disarming, entre-nous presence that she brings to live performance.
Barefoot in pajamas and a robe, lounging in a kitsch-filled sanctum-in-outer-space designed by Alexander V. Nichols, Ms. Fisher makes you feel you’ve arrived for a slumber party to swap confidences. Never mind that she does most of the talking. She has the gift, possessed by only the smartest and most charming of narcissists, of making you think that it’s somehow all about you when of course it’s all about her.
She initiates you step by step into her various worlds. To explain what it’s like to grow up among the much-married in Hollywood, she provides a photo-illustrated genealogy chart that takes us all the way from Debbie and Eddie (and Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd) to Ms. Fisher’s teenage daughter and Ms. Taylor’s grandson, who it seems have been dating. Similar visual aids are employed to explain bipolar disorder (a map of North Korea, a picture of Abraham Lincoln) and alcoholism (a map of Ireland, a picture of George W. Bush).
She also gives the audience a little yes-and-no test to see if we, too, suffer from mental disorders. Well, of course we do. More surprisingly, she speaks to us as if someday someone like Paul Simon might write a song about one of us, as he did about her, and how weird it will be to turn on the radio at random and hear your ex complaining about you in melody.
I have nobly refrained from quoting Ms. Fisher’s copious array of one-liners. Yes, many are hilarious even out of context, but you need to hear them from her. I will tell you that she’ll pre-empt any joke you might want to make about her, involving her bottomless hunger for attention, say, or her weight gain.
Ms. Fisher knows herself — or the work of fiction she admits she partly is — and the myriad ways she might be perceived. This is essential if you are going to be turned into a sex doll, a Pez dispenser and an illustration in a book of abnormal psychology. After the show, you’ll probably start to think that Ms. Fisher didn’t really tell you everything. But as long as you’re watching her, you experience the illusion of extremely funny, subliminally sad full-frontal confession.
Helen Lawson brayed in "Valley of the Dolls" that "Broadway doesn't go for boo-ooze and dope." Too bad Carrie Fisher appears to have taken that edict seriously, because her otherwise winning and frequently hilarious solo show, "Wishful Drinking," could use a little more time at self-sabotaging rock bottom. Instead, she delivers selective candor without vulnerability. Fisher is likable, acerbic, clever and wryly forthcoming about the warped reality of life in the celebrity bubble, but her stage memoir is a journey to self-knowledge that rushes through the bumpiest part of the trip -- the addiction years -- always en route to the punchline.
Fisher's avoidance of self-pity when reflecting on her lowest points is as admirable as her disdain for self-congratulation in the seemingly well-balanced present state she reluctantly concedes is that of "a survivor."
Nobody needs another poor-little-me solo piece about overcoming personal demons, even from a writer-performer as witty as Fisher. But from its title to its first spoken line, "Hi, I'm Carrie Fisher, and I'm an alcoholic," the show suggests a cathartic cleansing in the manner of "Elaine Stritch at Liberty." In that benchmark for solo vehicles, Stritch was disarmingly frank about her years as a messy drunk and, occasionally, a raging bitch. But it's as if Fisher got all the dark, destructive stuff out of her system in her semiautobiographical novel (and screenplay) "Postcards From the Edge," leaving this older, wiser first-person account feeling like the diet version.
As far as low-calorie foods go, however, this is pretty delicious. The first act, especially, is studded with zingers as Fisher recaps her birth in Burbank to "blue-blooded white trash," Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, through the role -- and the bagel-bun hairdo -- she spent 30 years trying to shake off, Princess Leia in "Star Wars." Whether she's lecturing (with visual aids) on "Hollywood Inbreeding 101" or reflecting on being some teenage dweeb's masturbation fantasy, Fisher gives this snappy scripted material an agreeably loose, off-the-cuff feel.
That relaxed aspect is key to Tony Taccone's uncluttered production. Outfitted in satin pajamas, glitzy robe and mostly barefoot, Fisher addresses the audience as intimates, from a stage dressed only with a few bits of eclectic living-room furniture and backed by a fragmented screen. (Set, lighting and video design are by Alexander V. Nichols.)
"You have been invited tonight -- not to look at my mansion -- but to listen to my furniture," explains Fisher in typically self-deprecating fashion, indicating a body betrayed by childbirth, medication and failed anorexia. "Unfortunately for some of you they come together..."
The discovery, via Google, that Fisher "now looks like Elton John," or "a fat Sharon Osbourne," yields the sobering acknowledgment that by donning that iconic metal bikini as Jabba's love slave at age 23, Fisher had entered into an impossible contract to look like that for the next three or four decades. As compensation, she is willing to accept such honors as having a Pez dispenser in her image, or a life-size Princess Leia sex doll.
Act two is less skillfully shaped, starting with her on-off relationship with Paul Simon and progressing through her second marriage to agent Bryan Lourd, who left her for another man ("Turning people gay is a superpower of mine"), to the years of addiction, rehab, psych wards and manic depression. (Fisher also touches earlier in the show on the traumatizing death at the end of this period of a gay Republican friend in her bed from sleep apnea and Oxycontin.)
There are incisive observations about mental illness (on the tidal shifts of bipolar disorder: "One mood is the meal; the next mood is the check"), and Fisher milks comedy out of the standard psychology questionnaire taken by patients like herself, by quizzing the audience and establishing how few New Yorkers pass the test unblemished. But it's precisely when the material should dig deeper into self-exposure that Fisher frustrates by continuing to skate along the jokey surface, thus reducing the emotional stakes and robbing the show of a strong narrative arc.
Filtering the tough stuff through humor is an understandable choice, and of course there's nothing inherently wrong with that -- "Wishful Drinking" packs enough laughs to satisfy on its own terms. But those terms are that of a superior standup act, not a full-bodied theatrical experience.