It has to be tough for a social satirist these days. Pop culture — especially our celebrity culture — has become so shameless it almost seems impervious to ridicule. In Sandra Bernhard’s wickedly funny (and surprising heartfelt) new show, “Everything Bad and Beautiful” comedienne and thesp (seen this season on Showtime’s femme skein “The L Word” and NBC police drama “Crossing Jordan”) manages to bring fresh perspective to the subjects of celebrity and motherhood (and celebrity motherhood).
She juxtaposes a life in which she’s on a first-name basis with Madonna, Britney Spears and Barbra Streisand with wonderfully unsentimental stories about her family in Flint, Mich.; early struggles in Hollywood; and raising her daughter. It’s not everyone who could segue from neighbors arguing over a fence in Yiddish to “I got a call from Bob Dylan” and get away with it.
A supremely confident performer, Bernhard opens the evening by stepping into the spotlight and asking, “Please don’t look at me,” knowing that’s a vain request. You can’t take your eyes off of her — there’s a mad twinkle to her eyes, and her voice, with its wide adolescent vowels and acidic, disputatious delivery, clues you in that she’s liable to say the most outrageous thoughts that come to her mind. She doesn’t disappoint.
An insider who plays at being the outsider (a trait she shares with novelist Bruce Wagner, whose “Cellular” trilogy and the just published “Chrysanthemum Palace” cover similar territory), Bernhard pokes fun at Hollywood indulgences — the private planes, religious fads (Spears, she confides with a wink and a nudge, “is a brilliant Aramaic scholar”) and pitch perfect imitations of Marianne Faithfull and Streisand. She’s just as tough on herself, joking about her problems keeping a nanny for her daughter (“when you’re as footloose and fabulous as me, you have to have one,” she insists) and finding the right Shabbat service while on the road. But she saves her most pointed barbs for the women of the Bush administration, calling out Laura Bush for hypocrisy and describing a dream she had where Rosa Parks dismisses Condoleezza Rice in starkly racial terms.
The anecdotes are interspersed with Bernhard’s renditions of songs such as the Christina Aguilera hit “Beautiful,” Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U.” The songs are used as commentary on the stories, but Bernhard sings them with impressive conviction, bringing emotional shading even to pop dross such as Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”
Tech credits are fine, given the small stage of the Silent Movie Theater. Sound is especially impressive; the four-piece band (plus special guest violinist Lili Hayden) were given a clear and detailed mix.