"Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir" by Keith Bunin follows Sam Bendrix, a bartender/crooner who, for one night only, has been given the time onstage to perform a nightclub act all his own...for someone who may or may not show up.
The City Theatre manages to set up a convincing lounge atmosphere, complete with (fake) smoke clouding and swirling around the lights. There are two and four-seat tables set up on risers so parties can sit together comfortably, and guests are even encouraged to bring their drinks with them. After all, it is a nightclub. The lighting stays ambiant, and the music from the band is clear and engaging without being overpowering.
The show is...fine, in every good and bad sense of the word. Luke Macfarlane, of some television acclaim, plays Sam and uses the audience as any good nightclub comic, basically as a second character or straight-man for his one-liners. Macfarlane's voice is like velvet, and he wears the character of Sam Bendrix like a dinner jacket - tailor-made. The musicians, while subtle, are great, really coming across not as actors (which they aren't) but as musicians there to support their lead. All in all, the show has the appeal of a good, low-key date night or something to bring your visiting grandparents to for nostalgia's sake.
However, those looking for a "something more" night of theatre may want to look elsewhere. Basically, "Sam Bendrix..." is another "my life as a gay man" one-man show. And, while this one has the distinction of being set in 1958 New York City, it is pretty much the same-old, same-old. Macfarlane is affable, friendly, pretty darn virtuous and very nice to look at, and in the little over an hour and a half he's onstage we get to hear snippets about his childhood, his move to the Big Apple, his loves and subsequent heartbreaks, his tender relationship to his mother and a lot of forgotten classic songs. But then, try to find a one man (of any gender) show that doesn't involve music or tales of ex-boyfriends or that life in New York City was/is harder than it seems. Maybe less songs and more history? Maybe higher stakes and less affability? There needs to be something to take this particular show out of it's already well-worn path.
There is one moment where Sam and the band look nervous, after all, it is 1958 and the mere mention of homosexual practices are grounds for a police raid. But, rather than the tension mounting as the story becomes more and more intimate and overt, everything melts away to more relaxed singing and talking. Similarly, the play suffers from several anachronisms. For one, the play is set in 1958, Sam mentions buying a Chatty Cathy doll for a friend's daughter several years before...which is miraculous, as the doll was only available in stores in 1960. Similarly, The Cat in the Hat only came out in 1957...also, the blender they pull out at one point is decidedly not vintage, but now Epony is just being picky.
As stated before there is nothing "wrong" with the show. It is enjoyable, takes a few low-key suprising turns and is willing to make you laugh and send you on your merry way. And there is nothing wrong with that, but some innovation in the form may be the shot in the arm this show needs to truly distinguish itself.
- The Eponymous Theatre Critic does is fact know when the Chatty Cathy doll was made because Eponymous was the one standing at the front of the line at Macy's in 1960 buying five of them for reasons which, as of now, seem very silly and far away. Yes, Eponymous is old.