Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 4, 2009
Wishful Drinking created and performed by Carrie Fisher. Directed by Tony Taccone. Scenic/lighting/projection design by Alexander V. Nichols.
If this is surprising, it’s only because - at least these days - Fisher seems to live with her pain rather than in it. The show, like her 2008 memoir of the same title (which was itself based on a slightly different version of the show), is more concerned with explaining how she overcame alcoholism, drug addiction, and bipolar disorder than wallowing in them. It’s about living life, with all its myriad complications and confusions, not welcoming death, whether of the body or of the soul.
Fisher’s story does begin with a death, however - that of a gay Republican friend who died in her bed (it’s more innocent than it sounds, honest) - but it doesn’t stay there long. Soon, Fisher is reeling back to the past, recounting her mother and father’s brief marriage (four years) and their subsequent remarriages (him to Elizabeth Taylor and then Connie Stevens; her to Harry Karl) and her own early years as a performer, at the London Central School of Speech and Drama as well as onstage (she was in the 1973 revival of Irene, in which her mother starred) and film (Shampoo). Then, it’s a surprisingly quick sprint to Star Wars (Fisher was only 21 when it premiered), her own tempestuous relationship with singer Paul Simon, and the battles she fought with inner psychological demons through the 1980s and beyond.
But the earlier sideshow moments too brazenly pinpoint the show’s stand-up-comedy roots, and Fisher’s later admissions of humanity swing too far in the other direction for even her usual lighthearted manner to completely absolve. (Of her manic depression, Fisher variously says, “One mood is the meal, the next mood is the check,” “When you’re manic, every urge is like an edict from the Vatican,” and “Losing your mind is frightening, especially if you have a lot to lose.) Fluid transitions between key points in life may be less important in comedy routines, where the joke is the thing. But they really do help for larger-scale theatrical outings, which usually need a bit of extra weight to fill out a full-size house.
That, however, is all that’s undersized. Fisher may be best known for her movies and books (including her 1987 novel, Postcards from the Edge, and its subsequent film version) but she’s a stage natural. If her voice has lost a little of its supple clarity since her earliest days, its new smoky brightness is the perfect match for her ever-upward outlook. Whether singing “Happy Days Are Here Again” (at the beginning and end of the show), engaging the audience in everything from Q&As and spirited barbs to psychological evaluations and even bringing one gentleman onstage to test out a Princess Leia sex doll (don’t ask), or merely narrating her life in a more straightforward (if cockeyed) fashion, she always owns the room and never loses her indomitable, self-deprecating spunk. Even if this show is, as Fisher insists, a self-serving vehicle that’s merely “a pathetic bid for the attention I lacked as a newborn,” her talent and inventiveness prove she’s earned it.
The show has already been performed all over the country since its November 2006 Los Angeles Premiere, at nonprofits like the Berkeley Rep, Arena Stage, and the Huntington Theatre Company. It could use some additional refining should Fisher plan to continue with it, which she should - at its heart, its good enough to play anywhere, and one doubts she’ll ever have trouble selling tickets. That’s not just because of her fame, but also because she embodies what’s true about all of us: “If my life wasn’t funny,” she says early on, “it would only be true.” All that keeps Wishful Drinking from being truly celestial is that it’s never both deeply enough at the same time.