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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

The autobiographical theater piece. It's a frightening phrase to say, and often a frightening thing to behold; but there are occasions when a staged memoir can rise to the level of true theatrical art.

In the last decade, the gold standard for these shows was set by Elaine Stritch, whose At Liberty (written in collaboration with John Lahr) broke every rule for solo shows: it was too long, too esoteric, and yet somehow totally captivating. No sets, no costumes—just a few songs and an unbreakable belief in the power of live theater.

elaine_stritch.jpgAt Liberty had a too-brief run at the Ahmanson Theatre back in 2003 (after its successful Broadway engagement). I suspect that the people who run the Geffen Playhouse must have been impressed, for in the last few seasons, that cozy Westwood theater has become a practical clearinghouse for one-person shows. Two of these shows in particular have strived so hard to emulate Stritch's show-biz magic that it's almost painful to recount the ways in which they fall short.

The first is Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher's one-woman show, which premiered at the Geffen last year and is currently running in Berkeley. The second is Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress, which workshopped in San Francisco last year and is now playing at the Geffen through next Sunday.

Both of these women are far more famous than Elaine Stritch ever was—Fisher because of Star Wars and Rivers because of her television career—but neither are able to turn their fame, access, or even their great dishy anecdotes into great theater.

carrie_fisher.jpgWishful Drinking is the closer cousin to At Liberty, and not just because of the amounts of booze recalled (though thankfully not consumed) on stage. Fisher recounts her life story with a few props (like a family tree and Princess Leah Ear-muffs) and there are few genuine laughs; but most of the stories, which would have been great over dinner party (and a few glasses of wine) simply wither in the spotlight of a full theatrical production. And what's more, Fisher's life—which has seen no shortage of drama—doesn't really captivate us from the stage. The individual scenes don't stand out, nor does it feel like we've been on a real journey with her—whereas at the end of At Liberty, you felt as if you were practically family.

Some of this may be because Fisher has staged her memoirs at the age of 50 (Stritch was 75 when At Liberty debuted). Joan Rivers, who will turn 75 in two months, tries avoid the specter of Stritch in her show by adding a few actors, a faux-red carpet ceremony and a fussy plot involving a wicked network executive.

joan_rivers.jpg This halfhearted attempt at "opening up" her stage memoir is both unrevealing and for the most part unfunny; luckily there are a few moments when the lights go down on the hokey set and characters and Ms. Rivers steps forward to directly address the audience. These scenes, in particular the one where she describes attending Mae West's funeral or her fall out with Johnny Carson, feel as if Rivers is finally letting down her guard and speaking from the heart. Before she segues back to the play's more schticky sit-com bits, these fleeting moments invite favorable comparison to Stritch's At Liberty and they hint at the handiwork of director Bart DeLorenzo. These monologues are the only parts of the show that don't seem tailored for television, but rather show sensitivity for the unique communicative powers of theater.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Photos: Michael Lamont