By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 12, 2008
No one does angry funnier than Sandra Bernhard. So when she turns her chainsaw wrath on the Republicans' new media magnet, Sarah Palin, the trash talk is so witheringly foul it feels as if it's been fired in a furnace of pure, unadulterated rage.
That's what you get whenever you're in the company of the fearless Bernhard, who has brought her multilayered rocker-comic persona to Theater J for the month in "Without You I'm Nothing." Like the entertainer herself, the show seems to be an ever-evolving organism, and as a result can be a bit hard to pin down. At one point it drips sarcasm, and the very next oozes sincerity. One moment she's giving herself over full throttle to a Nina Simone tribute number, and minutes later she is wrapping her song stylings in mocking quotation marks.
The constant, however, is a gut-grabbing performer who has no qualms about opening her mouth and letting all manner of things fly out: raw high notes, celebrity dish, political vitriol. Which brings us back to Palin. Bernhard mixes her sense of outrage over the Alaska governor's selection -- you get the distinct impression that the audience at Theater J is no more down with the choice than she is -- with a "street" type of souped-up bravado.
After Bernhard declares in the D.C. Jewish Community Center that if Palin were to step onto her Manhattan turf, "I'll tear her apart like a Wise natural kosher chicken," the explosive laugh derives as much from the sneering vehemence of her delivery as the idea of the evangelical Christian candidate as kosher poultry. (Not to mix beefy metaphors, but judging from the raucous response in the Goldman Theater, a partisan audience seems primed right now for this kind of confrontational red meat.)
The kosher crack might be the only one Bernhard makes at the expense of the vice presidential hopeful that is suitable for publication. (Talk about negative campaigning -- whoa, Nelly!) For though there are slightly less caustic moments of "Without You I'm Nothing," it is the interludes in which the comedian spews epithet-laden venom like a rotating sprinkler that a spectator washes in most happily.
Bernhard is a very funny woman by nature, a rocker by sheer determination and an actress you've seen in eclectic offerings: a lesbian character once upon a time on "Roseanne"; a whacked-out celebrity stalker in Martin Scorsese's 1982 film, "The King of Comedy." "Without You I'm Nothing," co-written by John Boskovich, is the club-set-style show she unveiled 20 years ago and that established her as one of the most original solo performers of her generation.
Although she's since created other evenings, including one that went to Broadway ("I'm Still Here . . . Damn It!"), she's returned to a vehicle that allows her to paint her performance in a mock-nostalgia for the '80s. Superficial fads in fashion, music and celebrity worship are her metier; just listen for the bilious wisecracks when she reads from a fashion magazine article about a party packed with models. In listing some of the trends she misses from the '80s -- aerobicizing, the music of the Fine Young Cannibals -- she's chronicling the transitory nature of pop culture and how utterly ephemeral the things that absolutely captivate us are.
One could tell Wednesday night, her second performance in town, that she was still sizing up Washington and what sets off an audience here. (Some of her references might be too New York or Hollywood-centric; a biting riff, for example, about an ad featuring a fashion-industry quasi-superstar didn't go over very well.) Wearing a fringy black mini-dress and pearls, she kvetched a bit about the sound levels onstage and, more distractedly, had to contend with a vocal member of the audience who charitably could be characterized as overeager.
The crowd went gratifyingly nuts after she trained that signature fury on the noisemaker.
A goodly portion of her unstructured, two-hour act is taken up with song. Backed by a three-man band, the Rebellious Jezebels, she belts with a Janis Joplinesque freedom from borders. Her taste for belting runs from Broadway -- she opens, nervily, with "And I'm Telling You (I'm Not Going)," the number that won Jennifer Hudson her Oscar -- to Prince ("Little Red Corvette"). Her instrument is untamed, and her apparent lack of vanity about it, an endearment.
But don't go to "Without You I'm Nothing" waiting for the soft soap. No conciliation or comfort awaits delicate sensibilities -- or the objects of her rousing contempt.
Without You I'm Nothing, by Sandra Bernhard and John Boskovich. Directed by Bernhard and Kenneth Hartung. Sound, Christopher Downing; lighting, Jason Arnold. With the Rebellious Jezebels: Mitchell Kaplan, Chris Jacks and Miles Kennedy. About two hours. Through Sept. 28 at Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater, D.C. Jewish Community Center. Call 800-494-TIXS or visit http://www.boxofficetickets.com.