Review: ‘Sam Bendrix’ a tribute to dreams of a bygone era
Thursday, December 1, 2011

Playwright Keith Bunin arrived in Greenwich Village long after the Bon Soir and the era in which it lived had passed into history.

So, his play “Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir,” which is playing at City Theatre through Dec. 18, is woven from threads of fact and fiction, reality and creativity.

“I guess Sam Bendrix is a version of the person I might have been,” writes Bunin in his program notes. The play, Bunin explains: “is my attempt to pay tribute to the men and women who walked the streets of downtown New York long before I got there: the people who paved the way.”

The play is set in 1958 in the fondly remembered Bon Soir, a tiny basement club that featured up-and-coming performers who included Barbra Streisand and Phyllis Diller, as well as lots of others like the fictional Sam Bendrix, who tends bar while hoping to grab a moment in the spotlight. “I’m the man you see when you can’t see the man you came to see,” he announces ruefully.

In an era when morals seemed as rigid as Sam’s crisply starched button-down shirt and as narrow as his fashionably skinny tie, cabarets and their employees could lose their licenses for voicing an incautious word or opinion or showing too much skin. The Stonewall riots and marches against the Vietnam War or for racial equality were unimaginable.

So, when Sam takes the stage on his last night before leaving New York, it’s not surprising that he’s 45 minutes into the show before he gets to the heart of the matter.

Those familiar with the era and its coded language will already have realized where this tale of almost-requited love is leading.

But that in no way diminishes its poignance and anguish.

Playing Sam is Luke Macfarlane, whom some know from his role on ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters.”

Macfarlane’s Sam is a slim, cool, attractive young man you might find in an episode of “Mad Men.” As he waits for that special someone to fill the empty seat at the front-row table, he’s alternately vulnerable, hopeful, resigned and cautious.

As he reveals himself and his story over an intermissionless 100 minutes, he engages the audience with a songbook of 20 songs of the era, such as “Blame It on My Youth,” “It Never Was You,” “That’s Him” and “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.” He also demonstrates how to customize a martini and construct a multilayered pousse-cafe cocktail, and plays the cello.

He’s a pleasant and intelligent singer who uses the songs to advance the journey of his story, which is the central mission.

Scenic designer Tony Ferrieri and lighting designer Andrew David Ostrowski provide the proper setting — a dimly lit basement cabaret space with wood paneling and floors, tiny tables and the subtle haze once generated by cigarette-smoking patrons.

Offering musical support is drummer R.J. Heid, musical director and pianist Douglas Levine and — depending on the performance you see — either Jeff Mangone or Paul Thompson on bass. The musicians, most notably Levine, provide cameo performances during the proceedings.

The production at City Theatre marks the play’s world premiere. Although some trimming and tightening is likely, it’s already a tender, sensitive tale of love and loss that should have a future.

Source: Pittsburg Tribune A&E