Opening her new show, “Everything Bad and Beautiful,” Sandra Bernhard takes to the stage accompanied only by solo guitar. Other band members and a backup vocalist join her one by one as she powers up Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” into a soaring anthem of self-love, commandingly inviting her audience to share the feeling and challenging anyone to bring her down. It’s a stirring start, emblematic of a performer who has always come across as an unpretty, pissed-off woman rendered fierce and sexy by defiant attitude. That attitude is still there in the sardonic delivery, but it’s tempered by the unmistakable whiff of complacency.
People go to a Sandra Bernhard show for withering take-downs of celebrity-obsessed contemporary culture and conservative politics, not to share her blessings and newfound mellowness. OK, after the public humiliation of being romantically accessorized and then ditched by Madonna, she deserves a little happiness. But the rewards of motherhood, a stable long-term relationship and kabbalah-fueled serenity do not make for electric entertainment. Bring back the bile, please.
Make no mistake: Bernhard has not suddenly morphed into Celine Dion. Her take on the Iraq war and on the White House women is suitably outraged and caustic, culminating in a surreal face-off between Rosa Parks and Condoleezza Rice. Her scorn isn’t exclusively for the Republican administration, either: She shoots poison arrows at Teresa Heinz Kerry’s particular brand of privileged philanthropy. But too much of the show meanders through personal reflections that don’t go deep enough to be illuminating.
Bernhard’s shows have always had the feel of stream-of-consciousness rants laced with songs that spiral directly out of her monologues. While that free-form aspect was compellingly unpredictable in “I’m Still Here … Damn It!” and “Without You I’m Nothing,” the new show feels unfocused and in need of an editor.
“This is theater by the seat of your pants,” says Bernhard. But that’s not always a good thing. Her material often is distinguished more by the performer’s aggressive style than by her writing. Constrained by familiar targets and lack of bite, here it’s definitely a case of stance over substance.
Returning to a New York stage should have been energizing, and the Daryl Roth Theater — a versatile space bedecked in Moroccan decor and bathed by lighting designer Ben Stanton in a mix of rock-concert flash and more soothing, intimate tones — is a good fit for the performer. But even geographically, the show feels uncentered.
Bernhard begins by talking of how being back in New York revives memories of her early career, before lurching into an extended account of her life on the West Coast, then and now. This show was first performed last year in Los Angeles, and there’s too little evidence of fresh writing to connect the material to the current engagement. Amusing nods to the Off Broadway theater’s original tenant, De La Guarda, and to “Slava’s Snowshow” around the corner don’t quite cut it.
Part of Bernhard’s edge stems from the fact that she both subscribes to and derides the fashion-and-fame culture that is the meat and potatoes of her act. That aspect is still front and center as she takes swipes at Britney Spears (“one of our foremost Aramaic scholars”), Meg Ryan, Hugh Hefner and Mariah Carey, for whose breakdown and subsequent comeback she claims credit: “I am responsible for the emancipation of Mimi.”
There’s also a dead-on, deadpan impersonation of Marianne Faithfull, underwhelmed by the behavior of Bernhard’s infant daughter over dinner.
But the disconcerting softening of Bernhard’s barbs is evidenced in her riff on the nauseating cutesiness of Dion and photographer Anne Geddes’ collaborative baby celebration. It’s funny, sure, especially when addressed with Bernhard’s trademark mock sincerity. But it’s also a little too easy, and when she allows that her own experience of motherhood prohibits her from judging anyone else’s, it dulls the sting.
What doesn’t disappoint, and in fact seems stronger than in her previous shows, is the musical element. Bernhard straddles the bridge between big, funkadelic grooves and driving rock, even stripping unself-consciously mid-show out of her slinky floral dress and zebra heels, down to bra and panties, to slip into classic rocker-chick jeans, T-shirt and cowboy boots.
Bernhard’s rough-edged singing voice is no polished instrument. But she persuasively sells the eclectic handful of songs with her usual don’t-give-a-shit confidence. Backed by a punchy band led by musical director LaFrae Sci on drums, she tears through numbers ranging from Cheap Trick’s “The Flame” to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” from Lita Ford’s “Kiss Me Deadly” (with a little of Pink’s “Just Like a Pill” as a lead-in) to the Stones’ “Out of Tears.” Best is a double-whammy encore of Prince tunes “Nasty Girl” and “I Would Die 4 U.”
More liberal distribution elsewhere in the show of the raw, kick-ass energy that animates the songs might have made Bernhard’s New York return a real event rather than a diluted rerun.