By Donna Herman
Phoebe Waller-Bridge may not be a household name in this country, but as the writer for the hit TV series “Killing Eve” which won 5 of the 21 awards it was nominated for in its first season in 2018, more than likely you know her work. But what you may not know is that aside from being a writer who defies genre so adroitly, Waller-Bridge is an actress of considerable depth and skill. Both her writing and acting abilities are magnificently showcased in her one-woman play Fleabag, currently playing at the Soho Playhouse for a limited run of 6 weeks.
Fleabag is the only name by which the character that Waller-Bridge plays is referred to in the program. We meet her when she rushes onstage, late for a job interview, trying to control her breathing and temperature as a disembodied voice starts to interview her. The session goes south quickly when, trying to get comfortable, she starts to pull her sweater over her head but then realizes she doesn’t have a shirt on underneath. Oops.
Poor Fleabag. She is a clueless mess with no filter. Her on-again, off-again boyfriend Harry has just moved out of their flat as he does every 18 months or so. Her guinea-pig themed café is failing, and her best friend and partner in the café has passed away. She goes looking for love in all the wrong places, hilariously, it’s true, but without much success. Each encounter leaves her farther than ever from peace and fulfillment. Let alone a decent night’s sleep.
After seeing Phoebe Waller-Bridge perform Fleabag, I’ve decided we have to come up with a new descriptor for the kind of theater it embodies. Comedy and drama just don’t cut it. And words like “dramedy” and “tragicomedy” are hybrids that don’t really relay both the emotional and intellectual impact this genre has. I think they should be called “onions.” Call me crazy, but that’s what keeps popping into my head as I think about my experience with seeing Fleabag. It’s the layers. And what happens as you reveal the layers. And the lengths people will go to in order to avoid those results. Just google “ways to keep from crying while cutting onions.” Some of them are hysterically funny. Holding bread with your tongue on the roof of your mouth? Really?
Waller-Bridge is a startlingly good actor. She is completely unexpected, absolutely beguiling, and one of the most charismatic performers I’ve ever seen on stage. Waller-Bridge uses her voice like an 88-key concert grand Steinway piano, moving up and down the keyboard with a virtuosic dexterity, leaving no one in doubt who she is channeling at any moment. Likewise, her face and body seem to be made of some more malleable stuff than most. What she can convey with a look, a sigh, a turn of her head, a slouch of her shoulders, is the mark of genius. Sitting on a stool, miming a guinea-pig escaping from its cage, with a mischievous glint in her eye, she has the comic genius of a Carol Burnett. But sitting on that same stool, talking with no inflection, silently miming holding a guinea-pig to her chest, she has the audience gasping at the Sophie’s choice she has to make, like a young Meryl Streep.
Fleabag Written and Performed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Directed by Vicky Jones
Scenic Design by Holly Pigott; Lighting Design by Elliot Griggs; Composer & Sound Design by Isobel Waller-Bridge; Production Stage Manager, Charlotte McBrearty; Presented by Annapurna Theatre at Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, NYC through April 14, 2019. Tickets are available via www.FleabagNYC.com, by calling 212-691-1555 or at SoHo Playhouse Box Office (15 Vandam St., between Varick St. and 6th Ave).