Luke Macfarlane steps into role of volatile singer in City’s ‘Sam Bendrix’
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Thursday, November 17, 2011
By Sharon Eberson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Imagine you are seated in a smoky cafe in 1950s New York, ready for a night of same-old, same-old as a young man and three-piece band perform a cabaret act of popular music. The city outside bustles to a cultural sea change that’s exploding artistic norms.

If you’ve arrived at the scene, you have found your way to the other side of the time tunnel where performer Luke Macfarlane and writer Keith Bunin hope to lead audiences experiencing “Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir,” a world premiere at City Theatre’s intimate Lester Hamburg theater.

The one-man show includes music by Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein and the Gershwins within the structure of a cabaret act that turns out to be a confessional by Sam. He is saying goodbye to New York, where he had come from a small town, like so many others, and things hadn’t turned out quite as he planned.

Sitting in a Starbucks on the South Side on a spring-like day a couple of weeks ago, Mr. Macfarlane and Mr. Bunin discussed the collaboration that has brought this project to City. “Sam Bendrix” strives to generate the feeling of a time and place while incorporating some of the lesser-known songs by big-name composers of the era. And it’s about what it meant to be gay in 1958, when the play is set.

“If you were from a small town in the middle of the country you might not know any other people like you, and it led to a sort of influx into the cities and it created this New York City life that really was unprecedented,” Mr. Bunin said. “We were also interested in the ways things were very open and very coded, and the incredible things that were going on artistically. Like the Beat generation, the modernist painters … Jackson Pollock, Frank O’Hara, ‘West Side Story,’ … Jack Keroauc, Allen Ginsberg …”

“It’s so interesting to really look at this history and you say, ‘Oh my God, these things were happening at the exact same time.’ It’s shocking,” Mr. Macfarlane said.

You may recognize the name Luke Macfarlane and the chiseled good looks from his stint on the ABC series “Brothers & Sisters,” in which he played Scotty, who was coupled with one of the brothers of the title. He made his Broadway debut last year in the acclaimed revival of “The Normal Heart,” about the rise of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the early 1980s.

The native of London, Ontario, sings and plays the cello, too, which is in part how he wound up as Sam Bendrix. Mr. Bunin had worked on another project with Mr. Macfarlane, so he knew he could sing, even though the last time was with a high school band, before Mr. Macfarlane changed gears and decided to tackle drama at the Juilliard School in New York. (You can listen to tracks of his singing with that band, Fellow Nameless, at lukemacfarlane.org/fellow-nameless.)

“That was the fun thing about knowing the actor,” Mr. Bunin said. “I think it’s a real privilege. Normally when you write a play, you write a play not knowing who is going to be in it. The fun thing about this was it was a manageable situation. That was a great way to work, and a way you never get to work.”

Although the weight of the play would seem to be squarely on the shoulders of the 31-year-old Mr. Macfarlane, he has solid help in music director Douglas Levine, who is the onstage accompanist and who has to react to Sam’s increasingly dangerous dialogue.

“They are the other audience,” Mr. Macfarlane said of the band. “Doug’s fantastic. He’s such a gifted pianist. We have yet to start working with the whole band [adding bass and drums], and when they come in, that’s going to be great for Doug because I can hear him imagining the whole band and with his 65 fingers, he’s playing the whole band. I think when he doesn’t have to do that, he’s going to take it to level 150.”

Mr. Macfarlane has put his trust in Mr. Levine as he has trusted Mr. Bunin and director Mark Rucker, another partner in the “Sam Bendrix” project, to give him all he could handle — but not too much.

“Keith is such a ferocious reader and knows so much about history before he starts a project. And in a way starting out with more and kind of cutting back was sort of a cheat for the actor. A lot of my background work was done for me, and sometimes in rehearsal I find myself saying another line from another draft. But it’s in a great way, because the character is living these lines he may never get to say but they are still very real in my head.”

He laughs when it’s suggested that “Sam Bendrix” is for someone with masochistic tendencies, because there are so many things for an actor to play: Sam is a singer and a musician who has to bare his emotions and get increasingly drunk as the play progresses. Mr. Macfarlane pointed to a revealing line in the play in which Sam, speaking of someone else, says, “The only reason people get drunk is they have an excuse to say things they would never say.”

“I think like most actors, it’s really exciting to be challenged,” the actor said. “You’re constantly saying, ‘Put me in coach.’ That’s what all actors want to do. And I knew when I looked at the script for the first time, I could do this. There are also times when you look at things and think, ‘Oh my gosh, this isn’t me.’ So I feel it’s like the privilege of the playwright knowing the actor. He didn’t give me anything impossible. I don’t pull a trombone out.”

Both men are glad to introduce the play in the intimate setting of the Hamburg, standing in for the real Bon Soir, a lamented Greenwich Village club where famous comedians and singers like Barbra Streisand and Ethel Waters were known to perform. The character of Sam is the club’s bartender who fills in at the mike on some nights.

Mr. Bunin noted that “it’s really a play, so it doesn’t work in a cabaret space,” where people are being served and perhaps talking over the performer. “I found when researching this, you go to Joe’s Pub or the West Bank [Cafe in New York], and people don’t really listen there … and this show requires the audience to listen to everything that’s being said. So it wants to have a feeling, which I think Tony [Ferreri] and the designers are creating at the Hamburg, of it being in a cabaret space.”

The playwright was familiar with City’s stages from a short visit during a rehearsal of his play, “The Credeaux Canvas,” in 2002. He and artistic director Tracy Brigden go way back to her stints at the Manhattan Theatre Club and Hartford Stage.

The play was workshopped at Vassar College with five performances for audiences before coming here. Both men are eager for more feedback from discerning audiences like the ones they expect at City Theatre. Mr. Macfarlane attended a performance of “Time Stands Still” there, and observed that the audience was “sophisticated and listened really well.”

In their first few days in Pittsburgh, the friends and colleagues had visited The Andy Warhol Museum and Fallingwater, and Mr. MacFarlane, who has been living and acting in Los Angeles for most of the past decade, had called his sister to tell her he had awakened to snow for the first time in a long time.

Pittsburgh was making him feel nostalgic for a city of his youth, Hamilton, Ontario, “where the steel industry used to be,” and at the same time revealing its artistic side.

“It wants to be in a city of culture,” Mr. Macfarlane said of “Sam Bendrix.” “Pittsburgh is really interesting in that way. There seems to be a real commitment to culture and there has been for the past hundred years, in a way that other cities don’t have, and cities that are closer to epicenters.”

Or as Mr. Bunin put it, “You feel like the city has its own identity and it’s very secure in its identity. … There’s a sense of a cultural civic pride.”

Source: Post-Gazette.Com