By Geary Danihy

That the distance between comedy and tragedy can be measured by a razor’s slice is made manifest in Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher’s one-woman show currently vibrating at Hartford Stage.

Fisher, known to millions as the perky Princess Leia, who is also the daughter of crooner Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds, bares much of her soul in this engaging, hilarious and (on the ride home) retrospectively harrowing account of her life and times – a life beset by small and large devils that she laughs at, pokes fun at, and barely escapes succumbing to as she takes her audience back in time to when she was a little girl caught up in the whirlwind of celebrity, scandal and the Hollywood marriage-go-round, a teenager playing a very ritzy circuit with her mother and a young woman asked to wear a ridiculous hair piece and support her breasts with gaffer tape (for, as Star Wars’ director George Lucas told her, “There’s no underwear in space!”), all in an effort to slay (or at least tame) said devils.

It’s a two-hour therapy session, with the patient (dressed in leisure-wear and, in the second act, a bath robe, her feet in slippers that she eagerly discards) allowed to rail, rant and wryly comment on the insanity that was and is her reality.

It’s heady, edgy stuff. It’s about sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll, and an extremely intelligent, evocative woman trying to find herself in the midst of the chaos of stardom and human frailty. That you laugh as hard as you do while all of this is going on makes for a somewhat discomforting morning after, for with the dawn comes the question: “What in the hell was I laughing at?”

And that’s Fisher’s point (at least one of them), for there’s much more going on in Wishful Drinking than first meets the eye or ear, for Fisher is a casualty of our celebrity culture and as she pillories her life and times and makes us laugh, she is also, subtly, thumbing her nose at us, the voyeuristic audience – her entrance at the start of the show says it all: images of galaxies whirl on multiple screens as an ersatz Star Wars’ theme pulsates and Fisher is seen in silhouette – and flips a double bird at the audience. It’s a gestural put down of the iconic sci-fi films, the bogus “philosophy” of the “Force” being with you and of all the eager fans who bought into it all…and yet…as Fisher acknowledges, if you haven’t seen Star Wars then why in the hell would you be sitting in the audience listening to this middle-aged woman rip her life apart to…entertain?

There’s a lot courage up there on the stage (or down there, given the Hartford Stage’s configuration), courage that demands the performer face her demons and laugh at them and, in the process, make her audience laugh. And she succeeds, triumphantly, but one can only wonder what toll each performance is taking on Fisher, for how many times can you fillet your soul before it simply disappears. How may times can you admit that this is how I’ve screwed up my life and this is how my parents screwed up my life and this is how I am right now – an addict, a manic-depressive, and an extremely needful, sensitive person who understands that it is all just sludge to be washed away but…it’s all I’ve got? And to do it with style and finesse?

Words are Fisher’s primary defense against the chaos that howls in the dark, and words serve her well. She is glib, arch, witty and a deft ad-lib artist, fielding audience questions with an experienced stand-up comic’s insouciance. Yet there’s a sense that the whole performance is being done on a high wire with no net beneath. There are times when the audience roars and Fisher smiles in response, but one senses that tears are not far away.

Opening night was revealing in ways that weren’t planned. There was a problem with Fisher’s microphone, and after an initial, scripted audience-response moment that had people calling out that they couldn’t hear Fisher, she was given a hand mike. However, the “Hollywood Inbreeding 101” sequence, which required Fisher to use a pointer to delineate who is related to whom (or who slept with whom), made the hand mike an encumbrance. The stage manager beckoned her off stage – she had to be re-miked.

Silence…an empty stage…for thirty seconds…a minute…the audience began to mumble…and a woman in a black pants suit rose up, walked down an aisle and stepped up onto the stage. It was Debbie Reynolds. The audience gasped, then started applauding as she did a restrained tap-dance across the stage. She was humorously covering for her daughter.

At the end of the evening, as Fisher divested herself of her final Princess Leia memory (the holograph scene) and the audience applauded, Fisher bent over and called out: “Mom! Where is she? Are you still out there?”

Mom rose and joined her daughter on the stage. Enough said.

Wishful Drinking runs through Sunday, Aug. 18. For tickets or more information, call 860-527-5151 or go to www.hartfordstage.org.

This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.

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