‘Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir’ charms at City Theatre
Stage review
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
By Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

City Theatre has discovered an effective time machine and finely tuned it to 1958 to re-create the mood and music of that year for its charming “Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir.”

It’s the premiere of Keith Bunin’s emotional biography of a gay man looking for love in the wrong decade framed with evocative romantic show songs of the mid-20th century.

Reminding us a bit of “Mad Men’s” Don Draper in his white shirt, narrow tie and slick hair, Luke Macfarlane plays Sam with an understated tenderness and regret tinged with hope. Bartender and fill-in singer at the tiny Bon Soir club in New York’s Greenwich Village, Sam is saying farewell to his unhappy Manhattan history with a final performance.

Blending great songs by Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Weill and even Pittsburgh’s Oscar Levant with his sad tale of searches for a lover in the closeted ’50s, Sam risks all by baring his soul to the habitues of the cozy club.

Once inside City Theatre’s second stage, the intimate Hamburg Studio, audiences pass through that time machine into a genuine New York basement dive. All that’s missing from scenic designer Tony Ferrieri’s nicely realized set is a cloud of cigarette smoke.

From the cramped bar to the small tables and the cheap wood paneling behind the band, his Bon Soir immediately evokes the feel of the times. Add the hip music from the combo led by pianist Douglas Levine and the world is 53 years younger.

Credit Brad Peterson for sound design and Andrew David Ostrowski for lighting as well.

Under the direction of Mark Rucker, City Theatre’s ” ‘way back machine” works its magic, transporting its audiences in a way only live theater can do. Mr. Macfarlane, who logged hours on the TV prime-time soap “Brothers & Sisters,” gracefully holds center stage for most of the one-act show, which is probably 20 minutes too long.

While he movingly tells the ups, but mostly downs of his character’s love life in the Big City, Mr. Macfarlane as a singer seems more comfortable in the lower registers. He and the band have a great rapport, however, a tight relationship that draws the audience in on the performance.

Playwright Bunin’s vision of what gay men faced in the 1950s echoes the writing of Christopher Isherwood and more closely the fine Tom Ford film with Colin Firth, “A Single Man.” It’s a familiar story, told afresh thanks to the great musical framework that saves the story from mawkish sentimentality.

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette