There is one soaring moment in Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking. It comes at the very top of her solo show but is gone before we know it. The actress who played Princess Leia in the Star Wars movies, and whose fictionalized memoirs chronicled her spiral into drug addiction and her Electra-fied battles with a Hollywood goddess mother, begins by singing “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Her voice is melancholy, the words fill the Geffen Playhouse with a rueful ache. We think she may be singing this New Deal anthem in recognition of the Democrats’ recent election victory, or perhaps to salute our national resilience after five years of fear and gloom. To honor something, anyway, that’s larger than the performer and her woes. Then comes Fisher’s monologue and we wise up — the song was all about her and nothing else.
Fisher’s story is familiar to readers of Postcards From the Edge, The Best Awful and the National Enquirer: How she was born inside the torture chamber known as the Eddie Fisher–Debbie Reynolds marriage; how her first screen role was as a teen nymphet who beds Warren Beatty in Shampoo, and how, shortly after her movie debut, she would take a long walk on the wild side with opiates and booze. Fisher retreads this and other familiar ground, telling us how, after Eddie Fisher left Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor, her mother ill-advisedly turned to older men for emotional support, including husband and shoe manufacturer Harry Karl, who would eventually squander Reynolds’ fortune. There are also references to Fisher’s bipolar disorder, her brief marriages to Paul Simon and to a Hollywood agent who would later declare himself gay, and, of course, to the gay man (always called a “Republican operative” by the media) who OD’d in her bed in 2005.
Daniel Ionazzi’s set features a starry-night backdrop — a reference to Star Wars, Hollywood celebrity and, perhaps, to Fisher’s own long night of recovery. On one side of Ionazzi’s stage looms a large tree (bad news for some viewers sitting near the house’s left wall), from which reflective tiles dangle; on the other, underused pianist Gerald Sternbach patiently awaits the occasional cue to accent Fisher’s monologue or to back her on the two songs she delivers. She wears a dark pantsuit that, together with Fisher’s gay cachet and choice of old standards, recalls another show-business icon who fell and, unlike Fisher, couldn’t get up. But Fisher doesn’t move with Judy Garland’s ease and, in fact, appears noticeably uncomfortable live. Perhaps Fisher was spooked by opening-night jitters or maybe she was distracted by the balcony monitor that scrolled the script and song lyrics for her, but her lack of concentration led to a number of booted lines.
Those who were beguiled by Fisher’s novelized memoirs will miss the author’s tight line deliveries and nimble shifts of thought. The program notes state simply, “Carrie Fisher as Herself,” but on opening night she certainly didn’t seem herself or, at least, as we would imagine her to be. Joshua Ravetch’s direction bears some responsibility. Apart from an uproarious moment when Fisher goes to a blackboard to delineate the tangled family tree issuing from her parents’ marriages, she doesn’t have much to do onstage. Of course, this is essentially a nightclub routine presented in a comfortable midsize theater, so no one expects Fisher to climb ropes or do backflips. Still, her performance seems almost arthritically inert; even when she closes Act 1 by pulling a man from the audience onstage to dance, the gesture seems forced. One would think that even if Fisher isn’t a natural standup performer, as an actor she could at least play one.
“Storytelling” has become one of the most overused words in Hollywood, a euphemism employed to describe the act of making things up for money. However, it’s not a charge that can be leveled at Wishful Drinking, which unfolds as a series of fragmented recollections, mini anecdotes and aphoristic observations instead of a few extended narratives that would weave together the strands of Fisher’s life and outlook. The stories tumble forth and names are dropped in a rough timeline that doesn’t open any new windows on Fisher’s life — something we’re tipped to in Act 1, when Fisher invites us to imagine the stories she isn’t going to tell tonight. She even resists resorting to the catnip so indispensable to recovery show-and-tells, the Day I Hit Bottom confession.
It can’t be easy being Carrie Fisher, and it must be harder still to be Carrie Fisher talking about Carrie Fisher. After all, here’s someone who did blow with her crooner father, made it in the back seat of a car with Harrison Ford and thoughtfully gave her phone number to the paramedic who pumped her stomach after one overdose. Fisher teasingly brings up these and other incidents and then moves on without explaining or exploring what led up to them or their aftermaths. Eddie Fisher, best known for the schmaltzy 1954 hit “O Mein Papa,” is painted in surreal, comic colors, especially in one vignette, in which Carrie meets him in San Francisco, only to realize he has swallowed both his hearing aids. Like many of this show’s stories, the incident makes us want to hear more about him, even if what we’ll hear is not so funny.
Probably comedians have better luck with light narrative or scarred childhoods — Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho and Julia Sweeney don’t work with blackboards or dance partners onstage, but as viewers we feel we are being talked to one on one, we believe we are being danced with. Of course, we’re actually being seduced by entertainers who for an hour or two make us believe we are their friends. As far as it goes, Wishful Drinking’s humor is unimpeachable (even if the show has nothing to do with drinking), but the evening could’ve evolved into something deeper if we learned about the background to Fisher’s one-liners. In a show that is all confession, what’s a little more?
WISHFUL DRINKING | By CARRIE FISHER | GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd. | Through January 14 | (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com