THANK GOD THE DRINKS ARE STRONG
The secret to living in New York is knowing how to cross the street against the light. Sam Bendrix (Luke Macfarlane) recalls having been given that advice when he first arrived in the city. Now he tells us, from the cabaret stage of the Bon Soir, that he must leave the city because, “I’ve forgotten how to cross against the light.” It’s a metaphor, to be sure. And I confess to being sluggish in deciphering them. But I’ll give it a shot: It’s 1958. Sam is gay. To openly display or express his sexuality would subject him to arrest. But Sam fears he can no longer keep his mouth shut, which would also threaten the welfare of his co-workers at the Bon Soir. So, better to leave.
The problem with Keith Bunin’s Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir is that the threat never materializes. So there’s no real conflict to play against.
This is Sam’s last day as bartender at the legendary club in Greenwich Village (here set at Martini’s in Hillcrest, which could very well pass as an upscale supper club in the 50‘s, if not as the claustrophobic cubicle of the original Bon Soir). While Sam has occasionally filled in as a singer, this is the first time he is being afforded an entire set of his own. Love songs are his passion. He confesses: “I had never been in love, but the songs were a way for me to practice what it would be like.” And so he frequently sings to an empty chair in the sea of cocktail tables hoping it will be filled before the performance is over.
Between songs, Sam regales us with the love-hungry stories of his life. He drinks a little too much, which appears to make the band uneasy that he might blurt out something that could send them all to the hoosegow. But this never occurs. At one point, Jimmy, the piano player, abruptly leaves, which upsets Sam. But then he quickly returns with a cup of coffee to sober Sam up. That’s it. There is no undercover cop secreted in the martini-drinking audience. There is no venal waiter or dope-starved musician who might betray Sam’s secret. Worst of all there is no reminder of the unrelenting police harassment and anti-gay violence that tortured this era prior to Stonewall. In the pleasant surroundings of Martini’s there is no sense of threat.
So what we are left with is The Band: Charles Reuter on piano, Kevin Cooper on bass and Danny King on percussion…all terrific. The Songs: an eclectic mix of great standards and lesser known works by Porter, Gershwin, Weil, Kern, Mercer, even Oscar Levant and P.G Wodehouse. Macfarlane (featured on TV’s Brothers & Sisters and in The Normal Heart on Broadway) has a voice that is at best comfortable, but not quite up to inhabiting the pain or joy that the lyrics invoke. And then there are The Stories: Mostly tepid and predictable tales of love found, repressed, and lost.
Perhaps the Mark Drucker-directed play is best summed up by the audience’s reaction to Sam’s attempt at self-effacement. Noting that: “I’m the man you come to see when you can’t see the man you came to see,” the patrons respond sympathetically: “ahhhhhh.” That kind of mocking sympathy is like pouring sugar into a dry martini.
Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir is a production of La Jolla Playhouse’s “Without Walls” series. It is a site-specific program that has had incarnations in a botanical garden, a parking lot, and now Martini’s, which not only has walls but a floor and ceiling too.
photos by J. Katarzyna Woronowicz and
Suellen Fitzsimmons, courtesy of City Theatre Company
Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir
La Jolla Playhouse at Martini’s Above Fourth in Hillcrest (San Diego)
scheduled to end on October 27, 2012
for tickets call 858-550-1010 or visit http://www.lajollaplayhouse.org