Sandra Bernhard - probably an acquired taste, like boysenberry yogurt laced with tequila - has arrived on Broadway, opening last night at the Booth Theater in "I'm Still Here ... Damn It!" The very title suggests a certain uncompromising yet compromised attitude and, indeed, the divine Miss B is full of attitude - blunt, cutting-edge attitude. And she's at her most adorable when she's angry. What seems to make her most angry is a mix of sentimentality, pose and hypocrisy - so, as you can imagine, when she looks out on her fashionable world of the bitch and famous, there is plenty to make her angry.
She starts her act with a diatribe, couched in a kind of sugary shout, aimed at such recent dead as Princess Diana, Mother Teresa and Gianni Versace, with particularly hefty potshots taken at their all-so-public mourners, from Elton John and Tom Cruise to the runway divas wetting their mascara all over the murdered couturier.
Her satirical tone is brilliantly calibrated to suggest fake empathy with these damp-weather friends and their chest-beating sorrows while, actually, mercilessly shredding their often self-serving gestures and ridiculing the whole publicity machine of media grief.
The limitation of her method is that her often scathing comedy - she's one bitterly angry lady, and she is determined to make a living at it - often has to go so far in imitating the thing it hates that it veers dangerously close to becoming it.
Just as it's not easy to mock boring and not seem boring, it is equally difficult to simulate sentimentality without ending knee-high in saccharine. But she does always manage to glint with naughty, knowing ambiguity as she telegraphs hip thoughts to her adoring fans.
It is a species of camp, nicely handled with a wry bitterness and a nervy anxiety, that translates into an off-balance mock-seriousness enabling her to embrace certain things obviously dear to her - for example, a doubtless very real interest in the cabala (the Old Testament study of mysticism) or, even more, her actual feelings on her recent motherhood - with a loud-mouthed but also diffident humor.
She is one of those modern performers who uses the stage as a couch and the audience as an analyst, pretending to shock yet trying to delight, all at the same time - like daddy's favorite little daughter. Her parents, by the way, do not come out unduly well from her tongue-lashings - but then, parents rarely do.
Her stories - all about life in that big, wide world marginalized by downtown Manhattan and pie-in-the-sky L.A., with side tourist trips taken to Morocco and Amsterdam - are full of the folly of celebrity and the contrasting honesty of Miss B and her admirers.
She has a certain tinge of the self-satisfied about her - her feelings are so smugly correct - but whenever you want to use on her some of the four-letter words she throws around in three-piled hyperbole, she will suddenly pull out something wonderfully honest and graceful, and your spite subsides into good humor.
An interesting woman, and a beautifully calculated performer - except in matters of appearance, which she makes into too much of an obvious statement. She is backed up on Broadway by a good band, although I could have done with a little less of her singing, which is strident without being individual.
She also has in support a young Moroccan percussionist, the beautiful Soumaya Akaaboune, who Bernhard typically describes as "the Phyllis Diller of Morocco" - as opposed, I suppose, to Bernhard herself, who might be called "the Phyllis Diller of Balthazar."
Esteemed members of the American Theater Wing, devoted patrons of the Drama League, lunchtime habitues of Sardi's, lend me your ears! Sandra Bernhard has alighted in our sacred midtown midst and, well, she is showing absolutely no respect!
Oh, how she picks, picks, picks! The vicious jibes at the expense of "The Scarlet Pimpernel"! The nasty little digs at "Footloose"!
"Hey," she announces contemptuously from Broadway's epicenter, the stage of the Booth Theater, her head swaying in mock ecstasy, her lips curled in a congenital sneer. "This scene rocks!"
Simmer down now, people. She's a hipster-provocateur, all right, and if her breaches of common courtesy set your teeth on edge, I plead with you, read no further. (The titans she makes sport of! Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise. Alanis Morissette. Liza. Courtney Love. Of all the nerve!) If, on the other hand, you're the dastardly type who craves a little mouthwatering after-dinner vitriol, who responds to a voice that calls forth your inner wild child, who's fantasized about taking a trip to the dark side of People magazine, then by all means, promptly pay a visit to Ms. Bernhard's scathing fun house.
There are no excuses for the outrages she commits in her 100-minute show, "I'm Still Here ... Damn It!," which opened Thursday night at the Booth for a limited run. And that's what makes it such a guilty pleasure. (The things she says about Mariah Carey! The denigration of Fiona Apple!) Ms. Bernhard may take things all the way to the edge -- this is foul-mouthed comedy as an extreme sport -- and even demonstrate a cruel streak, as in her devastating impersonation of a vulnerable Jennifer Jason Leigh, mumbling the words to "Cabaret." Yet through her fearless self-exposure, accentuated by her amazing get-ups, including a see-through gown that clings to her slinky cheetah's frame, she has the knack of making you an accomplice to her radical naughtiness, as she turns wickedness into a grotesque thrill, a joyful release.
The production is a shortened and revised version of her hit one-woman show last season at the Westbeth Theater Center in Greenwich Village. It is an eclectic evening in which, aside from trashing fellow celebrities, she tells a few sentimental anecdotes, reads a few poems and sings, with surprising depth and power, a few original songs and rock classics, like "Dream On" by Aerosmith and Jim Weatherly's "Midnight Train to Georgia." Given the fans she has acquired, through her appearances on "Roseanne" and her performances in a previous off-Broadway show and as a demented fan in Martin Scorsese's offbeat 1983 film, "The King of Comedy," Ms. Bernhard has earned her platform on Shubert Alley, even if she professes ambivalence about it.
Still, as she makes plain, the distance she's traveled with "I'm Still Here" can't be measured in stops on the subway. At times, you do need to have scored something close to a perfect 1600 on your HATs -- the Hipness Aptitude Test -- to get all the fashion and music and lesbian references to things like Manolo Blahnik shoes, the singer Ann Wilson and obscure downtown clubs. Smartly, Ms. Bernhard never stops to explain herself -- "Honey, I can't hold your hand here," is the show's unspoken motto -- and anyway, compiling an encyclopedia of in-ness is her obsession; it needn't be yours.
The supercharged Ms. Bernhard seems like the kind of person to whom you'd want to give a very wide berth on a bad day, but in performance, a bad day is what you hope for. No one, but no one, does high dudgeon quite the way she does; high heat is where she really cooks. The best moments of "I'm Still Here," even at its most esoteric, are recited in ire. Invariably, what gets her going is some injustice in the glossy worlds of the media and show business, as in her parody song "On the Runway," satirizing the grief expressed by the supermodel community over the murder of Gianni Versace, or her diatribe on the failings of today's young female rock stars, or her pique at a recent Newsweek cover depicting a man and a woman who have renounced their homosexuality and married.
So enter Ms. Bernhard's temporary house of worship -- the stage is serenely bedecked in dangling votive candles -- and quake merrily as she dismantles Linda Evangelista, snipes at Caller ID, inveighs against Cher. "I'm Still Here" is the perfect experience for the post-election season; it makes you choose sides. Me, I'd follow Sandra all the way to the White House. Or at least as far as the House of Gucci.
"I'm Still Here ... Damn It!" is the exclamatory title of the inimitable Sandra Bernhard's current solo show, but where the hell is "here"? The loud-mouthed, long-limbed performer, a downtown doyenne of the fashionable world she so caustically derides, begins her Broadway show with a riotously funny half-hour of down-to-earth musings on our celebrity-crazed culture. But Bernhard doesn't stay earthbound for long. By the time the show ends she's somewhere in orbit, all semblance of comprehensibility and congruity light years behind, hollering out a chunk of funk in a supersized Afro wig and peekabo mini, exhorting the audience to "fight the powers that be." When you leave the theater , you may be surprised to find yourself on the same planet.
Whether you're disappointed or relieved at the discovery that the earth is still beneath your feet will depend on your affection for this undeniably unique performer and her digressive postmodern attitude, which mixes a sincere, showbizzy affection for her glamorous subjects --- rock stars, supermodels, Allure readers everywhere --- with a sneering, implicit disgust for her own (and our) superficial obsessions.
She is that rare thing, a true original, and as such has a fanatical following that revels in her every odd utterance, even as the uninitiated may remain mystified. Bernhard doesn't shape her material into packaged little riffs that progress logically. She jumps haphazardly from bite-sizequips about modern life ("Caller ID? I'm waiting for caller IQ!") to elaborate little memoirs about Courtney or Linda or Naomi that find humor in strange corners. (And if you don't know who Courtney and Linda and Naomi are, forget it.)
She raps a little, recites her own shards of poetry, lights some mood-enhancing candles, chats about her relationships with her house painter and her decorator. The evening is a sort of deconstructed standup act crossed with a poetry slam and a rock concert, performed on a moody set that looks to have been assembled by mixing leftovers from Lincoln Center's "Twelfth Night" and some higher-end items from Pier 1 Imports.
The most accessible material in this weird whirligig of a performance is packed into the opening minutes, as Bernhard mourns celebrities we've lost recently, like Princess Di and Gianni Versace, with a lacerating mock sincerity that's her trademark style. As she speaks of her sadness at Di's loss --- "But how could I hope to match the eloquence of Steven Seagal on CNN?" --- or imagines a Naomi Campbell song in honor of Gianni, co-written by Sting and Elton John, "to benefit fashion victims everywhere," her singsong delivery adds a further layer of comic underscoring to the sharp material.
And sing songs she does, to boot. An unashamed wannabe rock star, Bernhard sprinkles her monologue with verbal shrines to Ann and Nancy Wilson, Joan Jett and Stevie Nicks (whom she worshipped long before Courtney made it fashionable), and then stakes her own claim as an album-rock diva with blistering performances of Led Zeppelin's "Dream On" and Journey's "Don't Stop Believing." Her wild, wayward voice isn't the most beautiful instrument, but, like her exotic looks (she shows off her lithe figure by wearing a see-through sheath over black underwear), it grows strangely compelling as the evening progresses.
The show's strangest moment came when Bernhard welcomed to the stage a percussionist whom she described as the "Phyllis Diller of Morocco," who proceeded to tell a joke (one presumes) in her native tongue before settling down to accompany Bernhard on a drum. Why?
Why not? There's no looking for rational reasoning on planet Sandra. Live in it and love it, or get out ... damn it!