Thursday, October 16, 2008

Funny girl

Carrie Fisher gets lost in space.

I confess I was never a Star Wars fan (in my experience, to really be one, you have to have seen the movies before the onset of puberty, and I didn't). But I was always fascinated by Carrie Fisher, who was obviously the strangest thing in that galaxy far, far away. It wasn't simply that her acting was bad (it was, but since then we've seen the likes of Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor fall before the directorial scythe of George Lucas, so this is no shame). No, what made Fisher remarkable was the powerfully unhappy sensibility that filtered through her performance despite the movie's zippy artifice. Her Princess Leia was supposed to be smart and spunky; instead she was bitter and sharp, a judgmental bitch openly parodied as a very different kind of princess by Mel Brooks in Spaceballs. Fisher's anger may not have been likeable, but it was arguably the only genuine emotion in the movie.

If you're looking for the source of that wintry discontent in Wishful Drinking, Fisher's one-woman show at the Huntington through October 26, however, I'm afraid you're not going to get your wish - although it's true you'll get plenty of dish, much of it delicious. But then Fisher's life has been a kind of moveable feast of dysfunction, beginning with the apertif of the divorce of parents Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, then leading through such multiple courses as bankrupt stepfathers, bizarre behavior from Mom, failed romances, divorce from Paul Simon, alcoholism and addiction, marriage to a gay man, a stay in a mental hospital, and finally, after a friend literally died next to her in bed, a deep depression capped by a course of electroshock therapy.

It doesn't get much more purple than this, not even in La-La Land, and Fisher knows it. But along this crazily winding road, she discovered a talent hardly hinted at back in her Jedi days: she's a born comic writer, and has become one of Hollywood's top script doctors. The trouble with Wishful Drinking is that she's indulged this talent at the expense of her own show: Fisher has, in effect, script-doctored her life, punching it up with one liners and disguising gaping holes in the plot, while never providing her leading lady with anything like an arc.

Not that you mind at first; Fisher is a funny lady, and such extended skits as "Hollywood Inbreeding 101," her hilarious attempt (at left) to explicate the multiple marriages of her extended clan, are breezy and clever, and studded with the grace notes that only a writer would pick up (like the fact that Debbie Reynolds owned eight tiny pink refrigerators). She's refreshingly honest about her acting (and that erratic British accent she had as Leia). And while Fisher is hardly light on her feet (and her voice slowly flags), she's still on her toes as a comic performer, happily fielding questions from the audience and batting back witty, spontaneous ripostes.

Still, her story is defiantly superficial, and she sticks to it - Mom's too weird for words, the Leia PEZ dispensers were like totally humiliating, and oh my God, you won't believe what happened to me NEXT! The show hums along at about the level of Leno, but slowly gets stuck in one adolescent riff after another, even as Fisher's life after marriage to Paul Simon (the one episode treated with real feeling) got stuck on an elevator ride to Hell. Of course, as Fisher explains, "if you're known as a survivor, you have to keep getting in trouble to show off your skills." True, but somehow this hardly sounds like an explanation. Needless to say, Fisher's private demons aren't really our business, but then she has put on a show about them, hasn't she, and as said show gets more repetitive, and leans more heavily on jokes about pot and Leia's pussy, we realize said demons are never going to make their appearance. All this dish, and she never serves anything meaty! Fisher's opening gambit is to joke about the death of a close friend, and her ensuing shock therapy; but at the end of the evening, having come full circle, she's still joking about both, because it's the "funny slant" that keeps her going - survival is all about "location, location, location!" In short, she says, "if my life weren't funny, it would only be true." Well maybe yes, and maybe no - but it might also be dramatically compelling, if she'd only let it.

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