After more than two hours of stories — about the sexual proclivities of dad Eddie Fisher, the Hollywood stylings of mom Debbie Reynolds, the marriage to the cerebral Paul Simon, the demands of the even-more-cerebral George Lucas, the gay second husband, the booze, pills, rehabs, the lifelong curse of once being a Princess Leia Pez dispenser that, being plastic, never could degrade — Carrie Fisher arrives at a deliciously complex 11 o'clock moment.
“Don't you hate it,” she said to her audience at the Bank of America Theatre on Wednesday night, “when celebrities talk about themselves?”
It's a savvy highlight of an extraordinarily well-constructed solo show: as shrewd and arresting and deliciously meta a celebrity solo confessional as you are ever likely to see, even though that particular genre is not exactly known for its elevated bar. It's a self-deprecating gag with the added paradoxical oomph of being (a) true, in polite conversation, and (b) a falsehood, given our demonstrable communal fascination with hearing celebrities, in some pseudo-real format or another, talk about themselves. Aside from the rubber-neckers who showed up just out of the curiosity of seeing She Who Was Princess Leia — once the twirly-haired, bedroom-poster fantasy of countless millions of spotty adolescent males — after 30-odd years of hard living, Fisher's audience just ponied up for an evening of precisely that. But the deeper truth lies in what comes next: “That,” she says, “is my point of view.”
It is a measure of the quality of Fisher's intellect — and of the astonishing level of remove that she has achieved from the inbred Hollywood meshugas that spawned her — that you buy that non sequitur. The price of her insight, we learn in the course of this most intriguing and revealing of evenings, was considerable. But Fisher has somehow managed the rare art of simultaneous self-actualization — what is more self-actualization, after all, than a solo autobiographical entertainment? — and total detachment from her own bizarre experiences. “Wishful Drinking,” Fisher's Broadway solo show which finally has made it to Chicago, is the work of a woman who has cultivated a truly remarkable ability to float outside of her own body and watch herself being dramatic. “I talk about myself behind my back,” she says, clearly speaking her version of the truth.
Much of “Wishful Drinking” is slick material — Fisher is a formidable writer, a talent that fellow Tinseltown train-wrecks most assuredly do not share — that has been well honed over the five years that Fisher has been performing this show. But although there is plenty of campy juice here for the “ET” crowd with their in-seat champagne and, on Wednesday, the kind of braying laughs that would, if heard nightly, send anyone off to the psych ward, the finer points of Fisher's remarkable piece lie in its star's ability to stand with her audience as she describes a life forged in the unreal, and unable thereafter to fully escape.
If Fisher were not so funny and unstintingly honest, the message of empowerment (“If you can claim something, it has less power over you”) might sound like fodder for a talk show where every breakdown is pursued by a stealthy camera; she is, after all, an entertainer who comes from, for most of us, unimaginable privilege. But her dysfunctional celebrity bona fides are unimpeachable. Even without Warren Beatty getting much stage time. The number of marriages in her immediate family requires calculus to understand, and when her dad has an affair, it is with no less than Elizabeth Taylor. And as her withering wit is so acute and self-exploratory, you easily come to see Fisher as the only honest one in the room. And when she recounts the story of Lucas insisting that she not wear a bra under that Princess Leia dress, there being “no bras in outer space,” you feel for her youthful self, oblivious that she is setting up an expectation that she will “always be hot,” when life, alas, dictates otherwise.
“Wishful Drinking” is, like most great shows, about the horrors of aging (and, to an equal extent, the relief that comes from the attached wisdom). It is also about what a number it does on your head when random strangers tell you that they thought of you every day for years. This set of stories has the added benefit of comforting us anonymous souls by persuading us that it actually sucks to be born famous (one remains not wholly convinced but feels better nonetheless). She talks of how she has struggled to win awards as a writer but has no problem winning awards for being mentally ill. She brings up Ibsen and Samuel Johnson (although not, alas, a full treatment of what those around her think of this very show). And she has biting bons mots aplenty: “Celebrity is obscurity, biding its time.”
But the real strength of this piece is how well Fisher's personal stories speak to greater societal and existential truths. “Wishful Drinking” is intended to be fun, and indeed it is, but the real nut of the night is this: “If you claim something, it has less power over you,” or, as Princess Leia the Realtor puts it later, “location, location, location.”
That's hardly original research, but the force of Fisher's singular reclamation is a sweet revenge on the director who turned her into soap.
When: Through Oct. 16
Where: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.
Tickets: $25-$65 at 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.com