Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir by Keith Bunin is world-premiering at City Theatre. It’s a fictional night club act dwelling on one man, Sam, a singer, who’s been struggling to have a New York career in 1958. While on-stage, detouring into drinking too much, he goes even further off –center and talks about his emotional ups and downs as a gay man at a time when coming out could risk lives and livelihoods.
20 songs, some of them pop standards, others from Broadway musicals, seem to be front and center. Bunin picked some really great ones as well as some fine others which are less known. Clearly he’s selected many to underscore the monologue. The end result looks like a musically decorated story which Bunin wanted to tell about being gay 11 years before, a few blocks away from the Bon Soir, the Stonewall Riots broke out. I’m not sure that this device works.
Certainly on the first Saturday night performance, I came away feeling sorry that whole thing didn’t work better. Luke McFarlane as Sam, having already given a late afternoon performance, didn’t sound up to the singing challenges. As everything progressed, his intonations too often went awry. His acting looked convincing though. But he didn’t get enough out of the meaning of many great lyrics; director Mark Rucker should work with him on that. McFarlane did come across, validly, first as Sam being a polished, slick performer. Later, as Sam begins to unravel, McFarlane also did well with that too.
The piece itself doesn’t hold up well if taken as being realistic, since Sam, once too much alcohol dissolves the intended act, starts doing unexpected things up there on the stage while the trio backing him always knows the songs, and is always able to play them without being coached or prompted.And, certainly Sam’s intended act did not include such items as “That’s Him” and “The Gentleman is a Dope” or other songs women usually sing about romances with men.
You could ponder the whole idea of a night club performer telling personal stories as far back as 1958. Not stand-up comedy based on their own personalities which some acts suggested (e.g Woody Allen). But rather, something serious, eventually personified by such people as Spalding Grey and John Leguizamo, taking up stages all by themselves. They’ve become famous for making their own stories unique and special with style and good writing. Sam, as written by Bunin, doesn’t have that much personality, being neither eloquent nor personally appealing. Is he supposed to be representative rather than specific?
Speaking of devices, at one point Sam brings out a cello and plays a little. But after that, he never goes back to it. Why not? McFarlane sounded good on the instrument. Credit too, Douglas Levine at the piano, suggesting an always agreeable, skillful part of the evolving act.
This new show itself is probably still evolving. And McFarlane, with good coaching and discipline, may be able to master his second Saturday performances.
I wish him and Bunin well.
Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir plays through December 18th at City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street on Pittsburgh’s South Side. 412-431-4400 . www.citytheatrecompany.org