Sandra Bernhard and her one-woman stand-up comedy concert, I'm Still Here . . . Damn It! arrived at the Booth Theater in a blaze of publicity. Interviews with the big-mouthed (literally and figurative) Bernhard have been splattered all over the media, including a lengthy profile in The New York Times Magazine. Now that the show has opened audiences have a chance to answer for themselves the questions tossed around in these interviews. Do Ms. B's stand-up Shtick-it-to-them brand of humor and singing talents work on Broadway or should she have stuck with her downtown comedy club-cabaret milieu? Can the vitriolic humorist and new mother (single, naturally!) and Kabalah student co-exist in the same show?
If the packed house at the performance I attended two days before the official opening is any indication, the comic queen of mean and the mellowed-by-motherhood-and-spirituality Sandra get along a lot better than Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ever did. I'm Still Here. . .Damn It! may not have the legs to fill up the Booth for a record-breaking run, but I'll be damned if the scheduled eight-week engagement won't be a sell-out, and bring plenty of aftermarket business for the HBO version of the show (already taped a while back) and a forthcoming book.
While I saw lots of guys with earrings and black leather and other pop-culturally hip types, the Dry Dock country heterosexual community was well enough represented to validate Bernhard's claim that she has crossed over. That's not to say that she considers herself lucky to be in the theatrical mainstream neighborhood. Quite the contrary. Bernhard sneers, as only she can, at her closest next door neighbor, The Scarlet Pimpernel, maliciously shrugs off Footloose as "foot-less" and does a nastily breathy take on Cabaret's current Sally Bowles. All this by way of a characteristically "modest" declaration that except for her show, "the [Broadway] scene rocks." Thus relegated to her usual suspects list of those specializing in cliches and mediocrity, the new neighbors are hardly likely to send a welcome wagon to the Booth's stage door..
If the subjects falling within Bernhard's jaundiced range of vision don't sound all that exclusively within the preserve understood only by the hipster cognoscenti, there's plenty more in the same vein. Cultural acouterments subjected to Bernhardian rants include: omnipresent cell phones, caller ID, (Sandra will by-pass this form of "passive aggression" and wait for "caller IQ"), water drunk only from "plastic mammaries" and the endlessly long New Yorker pieces have you arrive near the end "wondering if you weren't somewhere else at the beginning." (The reference to Tina Brown in the last instance marks some slippage in the writer-star's au courant status, Ms. Brown having relinquished her editorship some time ago. New Yorker jokes per se aren't particularly groundbreaking -- to wit Uta Hagen's briefer but as pungent "Life's too short for The New Yorker in Collected Stories).
Much of the patter is, of course, more poisonous and personal, though no less accessible. Even if you only read People Magazine in your doctor's or dentist's office, you won't be a total stranger to the fashion and music world's rich and famous who are at the dagger end of the Sandracerbic tongue: Courtney Love and Ed Norton, Liza Minelli, Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey and the latest in the list of people not speaking to her, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise.
Some of the most delicious and malicious jibes are reserved for the hypocrisy of high profile homages to dead celebrities. In case the name Naomi Campbell doesn't instantly bring the slain Gianni Versace to mind, Bernhard's rapier rap , "We Must Go On -- On the Runaway," makes the connection as transparent as the black shift over her bikini. "What a terrible thing," cries Bernhard à la Campbell . . . for me! . . . Who will give me my new clothes?/ I miss you, Gianni/ Strike a pose!" Elton John gets hoisted on the same petard with Bernhard snidely suggesting that the flip side of his "Candle in the Wind" tribute to Princess Di ought to have something about how "The candle burned out long before the royalties ever did." Not content with celebrity bashing the no-holds-barred Bernhard also takes a swipe at her father and cab drivers with body odor.
This being a hybrid of stand-up comedy and concert, a few words about presentation, staging and music are in order. The program lists no costume designer; not surprising when you consider that the star has been quoted as saying "I don't wear costumes. My clothes on stage are fashion oriented." Whatever you want to call that black bikini and sheer shift, she looks terrific in it. (no doubt the envy of any women in the audience who have recently given birth.) Persian rugs and votive candles turn the stage into an amusing and apt cross between a Mideastern temple, harem and rug emporium in a Moroccan Medina (where someone would surely rush to throw a robe over that show-all getup).
The biggest surprise, at least to this viewer, is that Bernhard, while not a great singer, is surprisingly good and clearly loves singing. She's also been smart enough to back herself with an excellent band. Particularly impressive and surprising is her projection of -- dare I use the word in connection with this performer? -- tenderness. This is most evident in the two numbers reflecting the mother-spirituality influence: "Keep Believing" and "God Is Good, Come to Pray."
As if to apologize for letting these soft-edges show, Ms. Bernhard unfortunately tops off what should have been the end with an overlong in-your-face and over-the-top encore. Maybe she heard about the little old lady who complained to Mandy Patinkin that she thought her price of admission entitled her to more than his one-hour Mamaloshen concert. That little old lady certainly couldn't complain about this one hour and forty-five minute show (without intermission and including that unnecessary encore). Oy, but she'd probably want to wash out Miss Bernhard's mouth with kosher soap. But then I'm Still Here is not likely to attract many Patinkin fans or anyone's great-aunt from Ft. Wayne.
|I'M STILL HERE ... DAMN IT!
Written by and starring Sandra Bernhard
Scenic consultant: Paul Holt
Lighting consultant: Allen Branton
Sound consultant: Nelson & O'Reilly Prod.
Band: Mitchell Kaplan, Denise Fraser, Dan Petty, Michael Stanzilis, Soumaya Akaaboune
Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street (Broadway/8th Av) (239 - 6200).
10/21/98-12/19/98; opened, 11/05/98
Extended to 2/28/98!
Reviewed 11/06/98 by Elyse Sommer