If Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag sounds familiar, it may be because of the cult television show now in its second season adapted from this one-woman play. Having premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013 and having had three successful London runs, it finally arrives in New York with its author-star in a sold out production at the SoHo Playhouse. Not only is this a riveting, liberated evening in the theater, it marks the local debut of a supremely talented actress and writer.
The play is framed by its unnamed narrator (presumably self-named Fleabag) going on an interview for a job she desperately needs as her guinea pig themed café is on the verge of bankruptcy. However, at a firm that recently had a sexual harassment charge, she accidentally pulls up her sweater forgetting that she is not wearing a blouse, only a bra. And so begins the raunchy, angry, self-loathing, liberated narrative of its heroine who has a penchant for casual sex, porn and the unfiltered remark in modern London as a young woman who is very much adrift in her life.
We hear about her relationship with her on-again, off-again boyfriend Harry (who does have a great deal to put up with), her prickly relationship with her successful sister Claire, and her uncomfortable relationship with her father since the death of her mother from cancer some years before. A chance encounter on the subway with a man with a small mouth she nicknames Tube Rodent, a feminist series of lectures paid for by her father, and the death of Boo, her best friend since childhood, all dominate her thoughts at this time.
We eventually find out the details of Boo’s death and our narrator has much to blame herself for. The alleged groping by her brother-in-law last Christmas makes things tense between her and Claire from whom she hopes to receive a loan to keep her café from going under, and her care of Boo’s guinea pig Hillary show her at her worst. However, the combination of stand-up comedy and confession are irresistible as we learn a great deal in this character study which is only 65 minutes but defines an entire woman’s life.
As a performer, Waller-Bridge is extraordinary. Saying the most outrageous things, she holds our attention with her animated face which registers every possible emotion as she goes through the events of a couple of typical days. Her timing is impeccable, drawing laughter from remarks that ought not to be funny. Replying to prerecorded dialogue, she is as natural as if she were talking to us at a bar where we were all drinking together. Under the direction of Vicky Jones, co-founder with Waller-Bridge of their theater company Dry-Write, Fleabag is always on, always enlightening, always a bad feminist who doesn’t hold back her personal desires, and always guilty of sabotaging her own interests. She is the modern liberated woman who lives entirely on her own terms but does not find happiness.
The production design could not be simpler: Waller-Bridge wears a red sweater and sits on a red-upholstered high chair on a square of red carpet (scenic design by Holly Pigott) with red lipstick which matches the other reds. The background and her pants are black which complete the stage picture. Elliot Griggs’ lighting finds just the right level to keep our eyes focused on the actress at all times. If you should become fascinated by the multi-talented Phoebe Waller- Bridge as a writer, besides the second series of Fleabag on BBC-Amazon in which she stars, there is also her award winning series Killing Eve for which she earned Golden Globe and Emmy nominations, and her new series yet to be released in the U.S. by HBO called Run which deals with another modern young woman whose life is turned upside down by a sudden, unexpected offer.
Fleabag (through April 14, 2019)
SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-691-1555 or visit http://www.sohoplayhouse.com
Running time: 65 minutes with no intermission