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Leave Before Last Call
by Nirmala Nataraj on Mar 08, 2008
Let’s face it -- the one-person show is typically the refuge of the very interesting or the very narcissistic. And when the person in question happens to be a prime specimen of cinematic and cultural arcana, the scales are almost always tipped in favor of vainglorious tell-alls. “Wishful Drinking” (which might have been more appropriately titled “Carrie Fisher Spills the Beans about Her Life, Willy-Nilly”) is one such example.
Fisher, if anyone knows or cares, once inhabited the golden pecking order of Hollywood royalty, as the daughter of silver screen icon Debbie Reynolds and fifties crooner Eddie Fisher. Aside from being forever immemorialized as bun-coiffed Princess Leia in the Star Wars films, Fisher is also a talented writer whose whirlwind of a life is perhaps best summed up in her roman á clef, Postcards from the Edge, a novel that was eventually adapted into a film starring Meryl Streep.
Whereas the novel gracefully relieved Fisher of the need to brandish her own street cred as a celeb taken through the tabloid wringers, “Wishful Drinking” has Fisher doffing the fictional gambit and running her entire life up the flagpole for everyone to see and marvel at. Of course, these days, Fisher could hardly vie with the new Hollywood demimonde, whose scandals far exceed drug addiction and bipolar disorder. All the same, the fact that the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, long respected for its innovative, superbly crafted productions, would allot over two months to a show that feels like it took a couple days to cobble together proves that Fisher is enough of a lure for even the gray-haired eminences who tend to populate theatre boxes to come fill up the seats and hope for a star sighting.
Fisher takes the audience through a long detour of all her addictions with several walloping potboilers, ranging from her own dysfunctional Beverly Hills childhood to a lesson in Hollywood inbreeding (which isn’t really taken to its logical conclusion but is mildly entertaining, nonetheless) to her rocky marriage to singer/songwriter Paul Simon and her emerging status as a gay icon. Appropriately enough, Fisher bookends her show with a popular saloon standard, “Happy Days Are Here Again", belted out to nice effect in her smoky contralto. (After all, you’re not a real actor unless you can prove your Tin Pan Alley chops.).
Of course, the buoyancy is no alembic for the sheer craziness of Fisher’s life. She quips, “If my life weren’t funny, it would just be true. And that would be unacceptable.” Admittedly, with her playful moue and air of benign bafflement, Fisher’s saving grace is her sense of humor, which seems to be the best method of making sense of the unhealthy trifecta of fame, addiction, and poor romantic choices that apparently has stalked her well into middle age. As all this is revealed, she struts across the stage, swigs endless bottles of diet Coke, chain-smokes, name-drops, and name-drops some more.
Fisher’s ability to dredge up raw material from her own life and spin it into a fabulous story is definitely one of her strengths, but her utter lack of discrimination is, accordingly, her Achilles’ heel. Sure, the kitchen sink melodrama around Fisher’s star-studded upbringing is mildly amusing, but Fisher must be disabused of her misconception that a good story is the same thing as a good play. The meandering way in which she preens about the stage, exchanges witticisms with select audience members (and George Lucas), and spouts muddled soliloquies about the cult of Princess Leia all contributes to the disjointedness of Fisher’s narrative.
The major problem with the show isn’t that it’s difficult to suffice much interest in Fisher’s life and her descent into drug addiction, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s that “Wishful Drinking” is so devoid of dramatization and theatrical momentum that it feels like an "E! True Hollywood Story" (without all the sordid, occasionally insightful testimonials from friends and associates) more than a grand showstopper. Truth be told, Fisher isn’t enough of a strong, multi-faceted actress in and of herself to carry the performance, which isn’t so much a swipe at her ability to rivet an audience as it is a testament to the fact that most one-person shows utilize multiple personae to avoid monotony.
As Fisher pipes on about her life, madly pacing about without nary a stagey ruse or put-on, the jokes become tedious and the ambience increasingly claustrophobic and wearisome. The opening story about a friend who kicks the bucket in Fisher’s bed, with her sleeping right beside him, posits itself as a necessary contrivance, something to help her narrative along, but it’s summarily flung aside in favor of Fisher’s meandering badinage. The scenes in which she talks about her experiences with bipolar disorder, depression, and other forms of mental illness would seem to be easy fodder for insight—stopping points for a worn-out audience to rest and maybe even learn something—but these excruciating instances come across as strangely vague, as if Fisher is quickly glossing over the tale of someone she knows but isn’t particularly interested in talking about. Any real insights remain buried beneath the endless stream of jokes and puns, which, unsurprisingly, adds credence to Fisher’s subtext: that laughter and despondency aren’t so starkly unrelated, after all.
Artistic director Tony Taccone offers a backdrop of projected images to complement the show’s otherwise spare staging -- and a series of movie clips, selections from the family photo album, and a vertiginous swirl of tabloid headlines add some add some oomph to the humdrum talkiness. Fisher, who’s already barnstormed a number of theatres throughout the country with her confessional curtain (and eyebrow) raiser, told the New York Times, “I know I’m going to get reviews saying, ‘Someone tell her to shut up about her stuff.’ Not only do you know everything about me -- it’s like, ‘Enough already’ too.” If we’re lucky, perhaps that kind of self-awareness might eventually lead Fisher to a script doctor.
I’m a firm believer that truly good theater gets us -- both the performers and the audience -- outside of ourselves, revealing some luminous truth that might be otherwise indiscernible. “Wishful Drinking” doesn’t fall into that category, and Fisher’s hamminess, albeit unintentional, seriously hampers the emotional resonance of the piece. Rather than waiting around for last call, you might want to simply go home and rest up until Berkeley Rep gets back to its regular programming.
at The Berkeley Rep
runs through April 12th
tickets: $16- $15
by Nirmala Nataraj on Mar 08, 2008