Sandra Bernhard's punch lines pack the wallop of a prizefighter's jabs. Mike Tyson-toothsome, she is a real bruiser, a raunchy knockout in "Without You I'm Nothing." Adapted from her off-Broadway success, this impudent one-woman showdown with herself is as exposed as a plucked chicken.
Bernhard, satirical, smart and extraordinarily plain, knows how to make an audience squirm. At once the bitter geek and the beautiful dreamer, she is her own ideal of what isn't acceptable. "Glad you can see how truly beautiful I am right now," she says, admiring herself in her makeup mirror a` la Harvey Fierstein in "Torch Song Trilogy." Like Fierstein, she plays a camp chanteuse with a quirky larynx and a closet full of secret longings and flashy clothes.
A series of monologues, faux interviews and musical spoofs, "Without You" all takes place in the Parisian Room, "an upscale Los Angeles nightclub" where an all-black audience reacts apathetically to Bernhard in her various personas. These icons, drawn from the American pop culture of the past three decades, straight and gay, white and black, got up in Chanel and polyester, can't seem to get no satisfaction.
Dressed in outsized African attire, Bernhard performs "Four Women" in a preposterous tribute to Nina Simone. The club's emcee says, "There she is, ladies and gentleman, Sarah Bernhardt, let's get behind her for coming down here this evening." The silence is deafening and we empathize with the bony vamp, reliving our own unapplauded moments, the slights of life.
Upstaged by a Madonnaesque stripper and haunted by a beautiful young black woman who is her own alter ego, Bernhard brings out additional personalities. Turning autobiographical, she becomes a Jewish kid in Flint, Mich., with fantasies of a gentile Christmas, then a tacky lounge singer with a taste for Remy Martin, a Cosmo girl who marries her boss, a Chanel-suited New Yorker at Andy's auction. Warren, Liza, the gang at Studio 54, the Tinseltowners, all things bright and shiny attract Bernhard's contemptuous idolatry. "Nobody ever said being a celebrity communist was going to be easy," says Bernhard's Diana Ross to Warren Beatty.
Backed up by boy Harlettes and rhinestone cowboys, the act is less a cabaret than psychotherapy. Bernhard, who cowrote the material with John Boskovich, ascribes a litany of brand names to her various characters, but none of them emerges with his or her own identity as they might in the hands of Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg or even Bette Midler. They're all Bernhard, the odd little girl, playing dress-up before a cracked attic mirror.
"Without You I'm Nothing" is ultimately about rejection, absolute and terrible. It is about being on the outside with the wrong color skin or the wrong face, or for that matter, simply for not liking the whole Southwestern trend. Bernhard is the ignored brat screaming for attention, an exhibitionist wearing nothing but gold tassels and an Old Glorious G-string. Dancing to Prince's "Little Red Corvette," she bares just about all for her art, but the audience isn't there anymore. They're at home watching "The Simpsons." "Without you I'm nothing," she says -- a bald admission, plaintive as a clown painting. Doing it for laughs hurts.