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Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir 

While the show at present isn't what playwright Keith Bunin wants it to be, what it is is swell.

click to enlarge Luke Macfarlane in City Theatre's Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SUELLEN FITZSIMMONS.

Boy -- if there was ever a show with my name written all over it, it's Keith Bunin's Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir, now world-premiering at City Theatre. Mark Rucker directs Luke Macfarlane (late of TV's Brothers & Sisters) in the role of Sam Bendrix -- a bartender at the legendary New York cabaret in 1958 -- who has coerced the owners into letting him perform for one night only. And thanks to a few too many cocktails, his between-song patter turns into self-confession.

Tony Ferrieri has designed the sumptuous recreation of the Bon Soir, made even more atmospheric by Andrew David Ostrowski's moody and expressive lighting.

Pittsburgh's musical genius, Douglas Levine, is not only music director but plays the nightclub pianist, and his terrific jazz combo runs through a list of American Songbook standards which could have been lifted directly from my iTunes.

So I was totally prepared to fall in love.

And yet I have to say that I was less than enthralled. It's not bad, certainly, and never less than entertaining. But on the whole, the show feels generic and unmoored.

Bunin has set his play in the '50s and, for the life of me, I can't tell why. Nothing in the show's plot or attitude is either necessary to, or even formed by, that time. The character of Bendrix processes the world around him with a sensibility so firmly rooted in the 21st century that there's no way to emotionally locate him in Bunin's chosen period.

But while the show at present isn't what Bunin wants it to be, what it is is swell. And a lot of that is because Macfarlane is just about as charming as anyone has a right to be; with his honest vulnerability, there's not a second we're not cheering him on. He also happens to be quite a good singer -- but, like the script, his voice is out of place. This was an era of brooding crooning (think Sinatra), not the bright, clear, unshaded singing Macfarlane provides.

As it stands, the show needs to amp up the authenticity. But until they get that, they've got the entertainment part covered.

 

Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir continues through Dec. 18. City Theatre, 13th and Bingham streets, South Side. 412-431-2489 or www.CityTheatreCompany.org

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