“A playwright and a playhouse walk into a martini bar … Playwright Bunin of ‘Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir’ interviewedEntertainment Feature, Top Highlights Thursday, September 27th, 2012
Most San Diegans wouldn’t expect to see, or hear, the names La Jolla Playhouse and Martinis Above Fourth in the same sentence, but they’d better get used to it.
Starting Sept. 24, at Martinis Above Fourth, The La Jolla Playhouse will present another Without Walls (WoW) presentation entitled Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir.
The Playhouse began presenting the WoW series intending to develop new works and to take risks, giving patrons and those involved a chance to take a step outside of their comfort zones. The first two pieces presented were Susurrus, which premiered in late 2011, and The Car Plays: San Diego that premiered in early 2012. Both ventures were received well enough that a third installment in the series was announced.
Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir is that installment. Written by Keith Bunin, the show takes place in 1958 in a Greenwich Village nightclub and is about a young gay cabaret singer who is looking for love in the wrong decade. Although the piece has the feeling of a cabaret, and will showcase the music of Kurt Weill, Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter and the like, it is all tied together with a script penned by Bunin.
The idea, as Bunin admits, came from his desire to write about the gay lifestyle of the ‘50s in New York City.
“I wanted very much to write something about gay New York City life in the late 1950s,” Bunin said. “I’ve been fascinated by this period for a long time. There were a lot of gay men and women from all over the USA who found each other when they served in World War II, and after the war, they congregated to cities like New York and San Francisco. In 1958, when the play is set, New York was filled with gay artists of all kinds; poets like Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara; painters like Robert Rauschenberg; composers like Aaron Copland and so many others. They all lived their lives in a kind of code; they were open about their sexuality in many ways, but in other ways they were deeply secretive.”
It was the secretive lifestyle of these artists that fueled Bunin’s desire to write this show.
“It always seemed to me like you could trace the beginnings of the contemporary gay liberation movement directly back to Greenwich Village in the late 1950s,” Bunin continued. “I love the music of that period too, so I wanted to do something that was very much music-centered. I got the idea to create a fictional character, a cabaret singer named Sam Bendrix, who could be privy to the nascent revolution that was taking place around him.”
Luke Macfarlane, best known for his work on the Sally Field/Calista Flockhart vehicle Brothers and Sisters plays Sam Bendrix. Macfarlane who played Scotty, the boyfriend of one of the “brothers” on the show has been with the show from the very beginning.
According to Bunin, the show came out of early conversations he’d had with the actor and director Mark Rucker.
“I met Luke when he appeared in a play of mine at Playwrights Horizons in 2006, and we’ve been good friends ever since,” Bunin explained. “So much of the piece came out of conversations we’ve had, and I wrote the part with Luke in mind. I met Mark at the Ojai Playwrights Conference in 2008 and I immediately wanted to find a way to work with him. I feel very lucky that Mark and Luke have been with me throughout the development of this piece – it’s very rare that you get to work with the same director and lead actor on a show over a period of three years and four cities!”
The show itself is something Bunin has been working on since 2008. Being a one-man show set in 1958, he felt that workshopping it and getting it on its feet was what brought it to life. As with most new works, much of the show has been whittled down since its inception and the honing process will continue here in San Diego with the help of both the director and leading man.
San Diego marks the fourth city the show has visited, and the second city where it will be presented as a full production, the first being at the City Theatre in Pittsburgh. Early workshops were done in L.A. in 2009 and then again with a full band and four public offerings at New York Stage and Film in the summer of 2010.
The music, which plays a big part in the show, came from a time period that was particularly amorous to Bunin.
“I love so many of the songs from this period, but part of the fun of writing this show was finding songs I’d never heard before,” Bunin said. “I wanted to try and make the act as authentic to the period as possible. There’s a book called Reading Lyrics, edited by Robert Kimball and Robert Gottlieb, which was incredibly helpful, as well as a history of cabaret by James Gavin called Intimate Nights. Both iTunes and YouTube were invaluable in tracking down some of the more obscure pieces. I tried to find the right mix of famous and obscure songs that Sam would use to tell his story.”
Bunin also listened to many recordings from that era giving the character of Sam a reason to address the audience. What he has created is a relationship between Sam and his audience; a relationship that grows deeper and more intimate as the show unfolds.
“[Bendrix’] act goes to places he didn’t expect it to go,” he said. “Because the play takes place during a time when most gay men and women spoke allusively and in code about their lives, I was very interested in examining what happens when those codes break down.”
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