There’s a relatively short list of stage plays that have been successfully adapted into TV series: Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” of course, as well as Christine Houston’s “227,” Tracy Letts’ “Superior Donuts” (canceled last year by CBS) and most of Tyler Perry’s cable comedies. But that distinguished list now includes Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s 2013 one-woman dramedy “Fleabag,” which the creator and star is giving a sensational and spirited revival at Off Broadway’s Soho Playhouse following a sold-out run in London.
The stage version suggests a cunning prototype for the brilliant 2016 BBC TV series — whose six half-hour episodes offer a delicious one-night binge on Amazon Prime, by the way — while still standing on its own as a standalone showcase for Waller-Bridge.
The 33-year-old British actress and writer has emerged as a millennial avatar for a certain kind of dry-witted, straight-talking, sex-positive antiheroine. (She’s also the creator of the hit series “Killing Eve,” which provides another surfeit of satisfyingly complex, mold-breaking female roles.)
But the character Fleabag is a singular creation, an updated version of Bridget Jones or Carrie Bradshaw who is both sharper-edged to the point of being abrasive as well as oddly more relatable. She’s the owner of a failed guinea-pig-themed cafe (and yes, there’s a story there) who is mourning the loss of her best friend and business partner, smarting at her sister’s more settled married life and generally stumbling through the ups-and-downs of twentysomething relationships.
She’s the sort of woman who shows up drunk at her father’s home in the wee hours of the night and declares, “I have a horrible feeling I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, mannish-looking, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.” (Dad, meanwhile, who married her godmother after the death of his first wife, is the sort who responds: “Well, you get all that from your mother.”)
What centers Waller-Bridge’s show is not only her razor-sharp wit, and her gift for narrative and comedic surprise, but also her performance. She sprinkles her monologue with the voices of other characters, delivered both by her and in offstage recordings, and she maintains a presence on stage that is rivetingly authentic in its bundle of contradictions — gawky and sexy, insecure and poised, old-fashioned (in its harkening-back to classic screwball comedies) and utterly modern.
Vicky Jones, a frequent collaborator, directs with well-timed precision.
Waller-Bridge has a special gift for the pregnant pause, as when she prepares to deliver a sarcastic greeting to her sister.
“I can’t resist,” she confides — and then we watch as she reconsiders, more than once, whether she can (once again) be so cruel to her flesh-and-blood. (Spoiler alert: She can.)
For fans of the TV series, it’s fun to see how certain characters — like Olivia Colman’s hilariously solipsistic godmother-turned-stepmother — exist only in the periphery in the stage version, which runs just over an hour. Others, like her on-again-off-again boyfriend Harry, have been altered in ways both subtle and significant. Both versions work. Brilliantly.
And both work in part because Waller-Bridge never tries to over-explain her character’s complexity. We never learn her real name, or even the origin story behind that title nickname. Instead, we meet a vaguely unlikable woman who so desperately wants to be liked that she would embrace a seriously unflattering moniker, even treat it as a perverse badge of honor.
In that respect, “Fleabag” is a role model for insecure singeltons everywhere.