By now you've probably heard a good deal about the psychological case study known as Carrie Fisher. To review the basic facts: Hollywood icon parents torn asunder by lavender-eyed Jezebel, early movie stardom marred by laughingstock hairdo, a minor shipwreck on the shoals of Paul Simon, rehab, resurrection via "Postcards From the Edge," rehab again, confession of mental illness to Diane Sawyer, bipolar acclaim, fresh scandal involving dead gay Republican operative in bed, more rehab. Prognosis: one-woman show.
"Wishful Drinking," the Beverly Hills yard sale of juicy anecdotes that opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse under the direction of Joshua Ravetch, is an L.A. story that would defy credulity were it not for the very credible presence of its narrator. You can call Fisher many things — an unflagging exhibitionist for starters — but she has a candor that makes her a most reliable witness to the far-fetched autobiography that is at once her curse and cure.
Is a solo stage gig the ideal medium for her lancing, ironic wit? No. Fisher has a jittery, lump-in-her-throat quality that suggests more comfort as a writer than as a performer. There's a reason Princess Leia was her acting high point and that Meryl Streep played her surrogate in "Postcards." Yet, as her self-parodying turn as host on "Saturday Night Live" in the late '70s colorfully bears out, she has always been adept at spoofing herself.
And she definitely provides humorous theatrical company for a couple of hours, though a legit venue like the Geffen sets the bar unnecessarily high. A better place for the show, barring a cozy get-together at her nearby manse, would have been the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. "Wishful Drinking" is essentially a nightclub act, composed of 98% patter, 2% song. Think of it as a low-fat cabaret, with comedy carbs replacing the usual musical creaminess.
Stepping out amid a glittery backdrop in a black pantsuit, Fisher opens with "Happy Days Are Here Again" as tabloid headlines recall her breakdowns, hospitalizations and other trials and tribulations. Her voice is the kind that knows how to sing even though it really wasn't meant to do so before paying customers. (Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher might be her parents, but when she belts a tune she could pass as the perky offspring of Liz Taylor and Mike Todd.)
Fortunately, what follows is mostly gossipy chat. Yes, much of the dirty laundry has been aired elsewhere. But the sight of the unsinkable daughter of the unsinkable Molly Brown reasserting control never grows old. I haven't seen a spectacle this hilariously ennobling — or could I mean ignoble? — since Liza Minnelli hobbled out of hip replacement surgery to perform her Broadway tribute to her father, "Minnelli on Minnelli." Needless to say, there's no Hollywood trouper quite like the child of Hollywood troupers. Quick, lend me your hanky, I'm having a tearful Mary Hart moment.
"Hi, I'm Carrie, and I'm an alcoholic," Fisher greets us before launching into a personal epic that only someone like the novelist Bruce Wagner could do justice to. Dad bears the brunt of her comic recap, not merely for leaving Mom for Mom's best friend but for providing her with such a vivid example of showbiz sleaze. We hear about his drug use and his sexual fetishes, though surprisingly little beyond her joke-strewn disdain. If tender feelings remain, she's not advertising them. Apparently, she has adopted Reynolds' survival ethic, which seems to put mothers and daughters before anything, save lucrative engagements — and who could blame her for that, given the track record of men in her life?
Mom doesn't get off scot-free, but Fisher has a sneaky admiration for her flamboyant eccentricity and work ethic. Not for nothing do they live side by side in a high-priced compound. Sure, they can make each other chuckle all day with zingers about "celebrity inbreeding," but they share something greater: a luxuriously appointed independence. After all, it takes more than luck for two single women to remain high atop the hills of Beverly for as long as they have. It takes smarts and gumption and, yes, a death-defying desire to stay there.
Husbands invariably get short shrift. Fisher admiringly recollects how her mother got out of one of her marriages "by taking a play in New York." Her own relationship to Simon fatally foundered from all the bicoastal to-ing and fro-ing during the filming of "Postcards." Easy come, easy go — and don't worry about the alimony, thank you very much.
"Wishful Drinking" is a love story, though certainly not with the bottle, which figures mostly as background baggage. It's a family romance, told by a 50-year-old girl who has always known that she has had the prettiest and most charming mother of anyone in her class.
Eternally a work in progress, Fisher will no doubt have more chapters to regale us with down the road. But one can't help wishing that she'd cut herself some slack and accept that she already has enough material for a lifetime. And with her cleverness, she could easily fashion something more lasting than a patched-together stand-up memoir. Heck, with so much female inspiration to draw on — and wry ambivalence to keep it from getting sappy — she might happily surprise us yet.
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays.
Ends: Dec. 23
Price: $35 to $69
Contact: (310) 208-5454 or geffenplayhouse.com
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes