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'Fleabag' review: Getting to the heart of where the series began

Phoebe Waller-Bridge stars in "Fleabag" at SoHo Playhouse.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge stars in "Fleabag" at SoHo Playhouse. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT "Fleabag"

WHEN | WHERE Through April 14, SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam St.

INFO From $49; 212-691-1555, fleabagnyc.com

BOTTOM LINE The inspiration for the Amazon hit is funny — until it’s not. 

Before BBC and Amazon turned it into a cult hit with a rabid fan base — making writer-star Phoebe Waller-Bridge a media sensation in the process — "Fleabag" was an intense, very funny 65-minute mashup of pleasure and pathos.

And so it remains. But Waller-Bridge's star is rising in the entertainment world, what with the second season of the streaming series just launching on the BBC (Amazon viewers have to wait until May), the raves for her second TV hit "Killing Eve" (she's writer and showrunner), along with her roles in "Solo: A Star Wars Story" and the second season of "Broadchurch." So taking full advantage of all this, Waller-Bridge has brought the bare-bones monologue she first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013 to the SoHo Playhouse for a limited six-week run.

Minus the slick production values and expanded cast on TV (Oscar winner Olivia Colman plays her stepmother, and Kristin Scott Thomas and Fiona Shaw are set to guest star in season 2), the stage version is Waller-Bridge by herself, perched but always ready to take flight on a deep red stool that almost matches her casual pullover.

Fans of the series will recognize the story, starting with the job interview that bookends the piece. Lets just say it doesn’t go well, as Fleabag (her identity is something of a mystery but perhaps a nod to a family nickname) comes on a tad too strong in an office already facing sexual-harassment issues. 

That, of course, is business as usual for Fleabag, whose early claim that “I’m not sex obsessed” fools exactly no one. As she launches into an extraordinarily raunchy stream-of-consciousness discourse on her various conquests, complete with hysterical pantomimes of titillating activities like taking dirty photos for her boyfriend and distracting sound effects we could live without, you begin to suspect you've wandered into an X-rated stand-up routine.

But there's much more to this piece, directed by her friend and frequent collaborator Vicky Jones. All this dirty talk, all this swearing is simply a facade Fleabag has constructed to deal with two tragedies — her mother's death from breast cancer and the loss of her best friend Boo to what she describes as an "accidental" suicide. In a scene that takes place in the cafe she and Boo ran, the tough truth behind Fleabag's grief is slowly and painfully divulged. Turning momentarily somber, she softens her voice and says just this, "People make mistakes." And suddenly the audience isn’t laughing quite so loudly. 

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