NEW YORK — Every one of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s facial features is intensely expressive, and that includes both eyebrows. But it’s her mouth that holds center stage at the SoHo Playhouse, where her fabled — and genuinely fabulous — “Fleabag” opened on Thursday night.
That mouth has been incarnadined in the deepest red, so it seems to have an autonomous life that’s at odds with the cool, pale skin that surrounds it. And it rarely stays the same shape during this one-woman play about sex, longing and what churns beneath them, directed with finely gauged precision by Vicky Jones.
Waller-Bridge’s lips shrink to the size of a postage stamp to evoke a subway pickup her character calls Rodent Face (handsome only from the eyes up). They morph into a rapt rectangular gape to summon a guinea pig listening to rock music, and curve into an alarming, complicitous leer to tell us about eating “a very slutty pizza.”
Then there’s that open, teeth-exposing, wonder-filled smile that poises sheer delight on the brink of a bottomless despair, two states of feeling that somehow both negate and enhance each other. The same ambivalence infuses the ever-surprising sentences that fall from her mouth like jewels and toads in a fairy tale.
Emotions never come singly in “Fleabag,” in which Waller-Bridge’s onstage alter ego (the title character) describes grieving, fornicating, drinking and insulting her way through contemporary London. You are possibly already familiar with the title and basic story of “Fleabag.”
That’s also the name of Waller-Bridge’s BBC 3 television series, which won her a clutch of awards after debuting in 2016 and began its second British broadcast season this week. But the “Fleabag” that has set up camp in New York through April 14 is a 65-minute monologue first seen five years ago at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. That show became the basis for the series, which was picked up in the United States by Amazon, and it made Waller-Bridge — who went on to create the demented rom-com “Crashing” and the peerless spy drama “Killing Eve” — a name to reckon with in the entertainment industry.
Much of “Fleabag” the play was recycled in the television show’s first season, which gave animate form to people described in the monologue by a cast that includes, if you please, Olivia Colman (and for the new season, Fiona Shaw and Kristin Scott Thomas). I would like to be able to tell you that if you’ve seen the series, you needn’t bother with the play, which is already sold out.
I’m sorry. I can’t. Onstage, “Fleabag” throbs with a concentrated, combustible vitality that a camera is incapable of capturing, even with pore-probing close-ups. Sitting in a merciless spotlight, Waller-Bridge never leaves the long-legged chair, on a small red rug, that is the production’s set (designed by Holly Pigott, with lighting by Elliot Griggs).
But, oh, the places she takes us, the hilarious heights and the despondent depths (or do I mean the opposite?). Fleabag is a restless and unhappy hedonist whose best friend and business partner (in a guinea pig-themed coffee shop) was recently killed in a traffic accident that was probably a semi-suicide attempt.
The show begins with Fleabag being interviewed for a clerical job, and it establishes her contradictory approach to others, including the audience, equally ingratiating and antagonistic. The interviewer is a man, who it emerges has recently been accused of sexual harassment.
“That won’t get you very far here anymore,” we hear his recorded voice saying to Fleabag, when she starts to remove her sweater, revealing she has only a bra on underneath.
Fleabag swears this flashing of flesh was inadvertent. Then again, pretty much everything she does is an act of self-sabotage, even when it’s in the name of self-gratification. “I’m not obsessed with sex,” she says. “I just can’t stop thinking about it. The performance of it. The awkwardness of it. The drama of it.”
She masturbates a lot, inspired by online images of everyone from Zac Efron to Barack Obama, “especially when I’m bored or angry or upset. Or happy.” And she registers all possible flickers of desire in the eyes of the men she sees, on the streets, in the subway, in her cafe.
In most best-selling confessional memoirs, such hypersexuality would be traced to a primal woundedness — preferably caused by a single traumatic incident or abusive relationship — and (or) a misogynistic society. Waller-Bridge doesn’t traffic in clear-cut causes and effects.
Yes, the script includes a late revelation about a life-wrenching act of betrayal. But Fleabag seems to have been behaving in much the same manner long before that act occurred. And yes, the show takes place against an internet-shaped landscape of vast and mutable carnality. (Listen to her listing the varied names of the porn sites she visits.)
But while Fleabag is very much a woman of her time and place, a self-described “bad feminist” who exploits and is exploited by what surrounds her in the urban here and now, she can’t be entirely defined by them. Think of her as one of the great novelist Jean Rhys’ lost, promiscuous heroines transplanted to the 21st century, but with a devouring sense of humor that goes far beyond irony.
Waller-Bridge understands that we are all laws unto ourselves, governed by our own special imps of the perverse. That universal distinctiveness is what’s meant by the saw “character is fate,” and it’s the source of both the deepest comedy and tragedy.
Waller-Bridge deploys an ace stand-up’s sense of timing to plumb this most profound of paradoxes. Fleabag segues with canny purposefulness among earnest wistfulness and dismissive flippancy, scorching pain and echoing, hollow silence, giving equal weight to each.
More than any current work of theater I can think of, “Fleabag” operates on the principle that no emotion is pure and simple. Society and sanity demand that we not acknowledge this in our daily interactions, and we do our best to adhere to a formula of true or false, thumbs up or thumbs down.
In contrast, “Fleabag” keeps all contradictory shards and shades of feeling in play at the same time. That’s why it’s so gloriously disruptive.
The show concludes with an abrupt insult, the commonest of angry epithets. Yet in Waller-Bridge’s rendering, an ugly, unprintable two-word exclamation somehow encompasses self-destructiveness, self-assertiveness, self-consciousness — and the unconditional thrill and muddle of simply being alive.
Through April 14 at SoHo Playhouse, Manhattan; 212-691-1555, sohoplayhouse.com. Running time: 1 hour, 5 minutes.
Credits: By Phoebe Waller-Bridge; directed by Vicky Jones; sets by Holly Pigott; lighting by Elliot Griggs; composer and sound designer, Isobel Waller-Bridge; production stage manager, Charlotte McBrearty; production supervisor, Aurora Productions; company manager, Megan Dettmer; general management, DR Theatrical Management.
Cast: Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag).
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.