Phoebe Waller-Bridge Sends Up Single Life in the City in Fleabag
The writer-performer brings the solo show that spawned her BBC series to New York.
Fleabag, the solo show written and performed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, opens with a disastrous job interview, the kind that is doomed from the first minute yet somehow manages to get worse. It's the opposite scenario of this New York debut for the British playwright-performer, who charmed audiences in Edinburgh and London with Fleabag, leveraging her acclaim into a series for the BBC (currently available through Amazon Prime). Waller-Bridge's reputation precedes her to the point that the off-Broadway run of Fleabag at Soho Playhouse is already sold out. She was hired before she even walked in the door; but once she settles in for this zippy, witty, cringey show, we see that the hype is completely justified.
The job interview is just a frame for the bulk of the plot of Fleabag, which follows one millennial woman as she navigates life in London, where she is the manager of a guinea pig café. Sad café that it is, there's only one guinea pig, but our narrator and her business partner, Boo, compensated with rodent-themed interior decor. That was, until Boo died in a tragic accident. This leaves our nameless protagonist (referred to in the program as "Fleabag") to muddle through as the end of their commercial lease rapidly approaches.
We learn all of this through Fleabag's first-person narration, which has the feeling of a happy hour dishfest with an old friend. She talks about her erratic dating life, her "corporate lady slave" big sister, and her unabashed love of hardcore porn. "I masturbate a lot these days," she nonchalantly mentions, "especially when I'm bored or angry or upset. Or happy." Her sexcapades are less ripped from the pages of Cosmo than they are peeled from the floor of a truck-stop restroom. It's like Sex and the City, but honest.
Waller-Bridge's priceless facial expressions do half the work as she flinches in disgust, or bunches her lips up to portray a date named "Tube Rodent" (because she met him on the subway and his big teeth and tiny mouth make him look like a rat). She has vividly painted her lips with blood-red lipstick so that they are visible from the back of the house, leading to a surprisingly intimate solo performance in the cavernous theater.
Vicky Jones's less-is-more direction further focuses an already powerful performance. Waller-Bridge sits on a cushioned bar stool in the center of a platform decorated with a square of red carpet (the extent of Holly Pigott's set design). She stands up only once, and never moves from the platform, yet we're riveted. Elliot Griggs's muted lighting accents the scene changes and location shifts. Isobel Waller-Bridge's sound design constitutes the most substantial design element, with the noise of the tube, the voice of the interviewer, and the sound of Fleabag's porn all making aural appearances. They enrich the show and give Waller-Bridge something to play against.
Undoubtedly, some viewers will recoil from the darker confessions in Fleabag, if only out of a recognition of having similar, unspoken thoughts. Like an intense cross between Lena Dunham and David Sedaris, Waller-Bridge mines the unglamorous truth of urban living and turns it into comedy gold.