By Jordan Cohen
Sandra Bernhard is back at Joe’s Pub for her annual year-end residency, and at sixty years old, her acerbic one-liners, celebrity barbs, stylized monologues, and irony-tinged musical performances seem a bit more settled and subdued – perhaps even self-reflective – but certainly still not polite. This dame of downtown (but also Broadway and a slew of television shows, most famously Roseanne) has earned a die-hard fan base throughout a career that has managed to blur the lines between stand-up, performance art, and cabaret. Her shows balance observational humor and cutting satire, sending up politics and celebrity culture in subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – ways.
This time around, Ms. Bernhard has pulled back on her stingers and zingers and seems to rely on a natural penchant for storytelling and an innate sense of irony to let the humor rise to the surface. She is unapologetic when a bit flops and marches forth with the charisma and confidence of a seasoned pro toughened by a life in the biz.
She regales us with various stories about her family and celebrity friends, like the one about the time she was stood up by Liza Minnelli: she drove to her house to pick her up for a dinner date, only to discover Liza was nowhere to be found. We hear about how she, Lady Bunny and Mary Wilson of The Supremes, joked about giving makeovers to Hassidic women on the subway. Then there’s the story about Henry Winkler playing matchmaker with Anjelica Huston and his octogenarian cancer patient friend.
But she seems to hold back from taking the kinds of jabs she has become famous for – perhaps raising a teenage daughter with her longtime partner has softened that edge – and instead relies on us, the audience, to fill in much of the commentary for ourselves. And in our twitterfied, celebrity-obsessed culture, this kind of “let me just tell you how it is from my perspective” style resonates.
This approach is most successful during a monologue in which she lists the members of her imaginary “squad” – millennial-speak for “clique” – which includes Taylor Swift (obviously), Lena Dunham (for some intellectual flavor), Jennifer Lawrence (who just fell down!), and Lorde (hand-writing a song in the corner), among others. There is a lot going on in this simple segment. Musical underscoring, finger snapping, her eccentrically rhythmic delivery and ironic sense of self-importance juxtaposes with her hard-boiled feminist comedienne persona. The commentary emerges without comment. In a similarly stylized number, Ms. Bernhard delivers Caitlyn Jenner’s inner monologue with hilarious dispassion: “Last year I was a lonely man, this year I am a lonely lady.” This bit transitions into a sincerely performed rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas.”
While the musical numbers seem to take a backseat to the storytelling, her songs, sung with untempered vocal power, cleverly compliment the stories she tells. She sings a delicious version of Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” after soliloquizing affectionately about Tom Jones, her teenage idol, and Grace Jones, a longtime friend. Her finale, “Just Like Jesse James,” and encore, a mash-up of Jackson 5’s “Can You Feel It” and The Lion King’s “Can you Feel the Love Tonight,” brought the evening to a celebratory conclusion.
Don’t expect politics with a capital P from Ms. Bernhard’s performance. While she brushes on Donald Trump and his disgust for double dipping, the kind of election year critique one might expect (especially given the show’s title) is largely absent. Instead, we get a Sandra Bernhard that doesn’t seem to want to go there, preferring to play above that political muck. She’s gentler, but still fierce, kinder, but still critical, and her observational eye remains, after all these years, one of the best around.
Sandra Bernhard: Feel the Bernhard
Joe’s Pub at the Public Theatre
425 Lafayette Street
New York, NY 10003
Doors at 6PM & 9PM, Shows at 7:30PM & 9:30PM (12/26-12/30)
Doors at 8:30PM & 10:30PM, Shows at 9PM & 11PM (12/31)