‘Sam Bendrix’ hits the highlights of a heyday
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Last updated: 1:38 pm

Luke Macfarlane wants to make one thing clear about “Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir.”

“It is not a cabaret act,” he says. “It’s a beautiful, delicate play, a one-man show disguised as a cabaret act.”

Some confusion is inevitable.

The play takes place in 1958 in the Bon Soir, a legendary nightclub where performers including Barbra Streisand and Phyllis Diller got their starts.

The Bon Soir was a smoky, intimate venue where well-dressed, diverse audience — blacks and whites, straights and gays — gathered to hear music by legendary songwriters such as Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein and the Gershwins. It was an era before rock ‘n’ roll, the Stonewall riots, the Civil Rights struggle and the Vietnam War changed the world.

“It was an intimate world — a club where so many different parts of New York could get together,” Macfarlane says.

At the center of the spotlight is Sam Bendrix, a young singer who takes the stage and his band for a final performance before he quits New York City forever.

While a chair he’s holding for a special someone sits empty all night, Bendrix tells a classic tale of an era not yet ready for the revolutionary changes on the horizon.

Written by Keith Bunin, whose play “The Credeaux Canvas” was produced at City Theatre in 2002, “Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir” is having its world premiere through Dec. 18 in the Hamburg Studio at City Theatre on the South Side.

Interwoven into the action are some two dozen songs, some of which would have already been classics and others that were contemporary hits of the period.

“Keith wanted a blend of songs people knew and some that would be unfamiliar,” says Mcfarlane, who has been playing Sam Bendrix since last year when the play began as a workshop production in New York City.

The move to a fully-staged production at City Theatre is the next stage in its development.

“It’s about finding a space where it can transform to what it might become,” Macfarlane says. “We might also discover that I can’t pull off the show.”

Macfarlane’s career spans roles on television, in movies and on stage. He is most widely known as Scotty Wendell on the ABC series “Brothers and Sisters.” In April, he made his Broadway debut playing Craig Donner in the revival of “The Normal Heart.”

“Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir” is his first one-man show, an experience he calls “daunting, terrifying.”

Since being cast in the workshop production, he has spent time researching the cabaret experience and the world in which the play is set.

“I’ve been trying to take in as many cabaret performances as I can,” he says while lamenting the fact that few contemporary cabarets reproduce the ambiance of the Bon Soir.

He feels a deep connection to the character he plays.

“I understand Sam in an intimate way — all the things that pull him in this life — and I play the cello. Try to find someone else who can do that,” he says.

City Theatre artistic director Tracy Brigden believes Macfarlane is well-suited to the role.

“Sam Bendrix requires an actor loaded with charisma and charm, someone who can tell an emotional story, and — most importantly — someone who can perform these wonderful songs,” she says. “Luke’s magnetic star power on the very intimate Hamburg stage is going to make for an unforgettable evening of theater.”