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.