Watching Phoebe Waller-Bridge, as the lead character of “Fleabag,” trying to resist saying something bitingly perceptive, inappropriately funny and completely unexpected is a study of comic expansiveness. And when she can’t contain herself a second longer, she lets loose with a zinger that spares no one — not even, and perhaps especially, herself.
“Is that a joke?” a potentially offended man asks her after she says something wildly disturbing.
After a moment of deep consideration, she responds sincerely, “I don’t know.” And though audiences will laugh uproariously, they may not be so sure either.
In this sharply-told nugget of a play, this unfiltered, sexually obsessed and profane character brilliantly reveals the thin divide between the comedy of lashing out and self-deprecation — and the pain, sadness and introspection that hide within.
Waller-Bridge’s breakout solo show first bowed in Edinburgh in 2013 before playing London and touring, and then became the inspiration for the popular BBC/Amazon Prime series, now in its second season. To judge by the audience’s enthusiastic reception at the hot-ticket Off Broadway run of the stage version, “Fleabag” and Waller-Bridge are equally popular Stateside. (Just to show her range is wide, Waller-Bridge also created the psychosexual spy thriller “Killing Eve.”.)
At first, the play and the character evoke the comic brashness and sexual liberation of Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” But Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag has an allure and likability even when she says such terrible — and probably very true — things about her family, her lovers and, of course, herself.
In the TV series Fleabag addresses the camera directly, but there’s an even deeper intimacy in this barebones stage show. Here it feels more like a confessional, albeit one in which she is trying to charm, seduce and shock the listener all at once with her bad-girl tales. Seated front and center — and sometimes reacting to the voices of several recorded characters — she simply tells the story of her current, desperate existence, with nervy humor and just a glint of vulnerability to make us think twice.
Boo, her friend and partner in the coffee house they own, was recently killed sort-of accidentally and now Fleabag — the odd moniker isn’t explained other than its general meaning of unpleasantness — needs money to keep the cafe open.
She hopes to get it from a banker but the interview goes quickly south, and then she tries to get it from her high-powered exec of a sister, with whom she has a strained relationship. Her father is even more removed from her life.
Adding to her feigned nonchalance is the news that boyfriend Harry left her yet again. There are several other encounters with men she picks up — and inevitably drops — but not before revealing some juicy sexual details, physical imperfections and personality quirks.
But scathing comments are just Fleabag’s way of dealing with trauma and a host of other issues. While laughs are plentiful, loneliness, disappointment and death are there, too.