Austin Pendleton and Barbara Bleier

July 19, 2016 | By | Add a Comment

Bleier & PendletonAustin Pendleton and Barbara Bleier have a sweet rapport with one another in their show “Late Nights in Smoky Bars” (at Pangea; directed by Barbara Maier Gustern). The two portray longtime friends who meet regularly over potent potables to sort out their lives and offer each other support. (At least that’s how it seems at the outset, but more about that below.) I’m not sure exactly how autobiographical the show’s scenario is, but I suspect these actor-singers may have a sort of finish-each-other’s-sentences kind of relationship.

“Late Nights” may have been a good idea on paper, but its execution here has some significant problems. The script (not credited to anyone, at least not in press materials) is clearly meant to be loose and fluid. In fact, the whole thing comes off as a rough, improvised sketch, with plenty of room for adlibs. At the performance I saw, the storyline was contradictory and, ultimately, aimless. Early on it was established that the “Barbara” character has met “Austin” at their usual watering hole to pour out her heart to him about a romance that has gone south. “Austin,” perhaps jokingly (but maybe not), mentioned some fairly severe deficiencies in her lover’s character: transgressions involving money and infidelity. Yet afterward, he immediately began defending him, singing Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Something Wonderful” to remind Barbara of all the guy’s good points. She—understandably—found this irksome.

Confusingly, the tiff then transformed into something resembling a romantic lovers’ quarrel between Austin and Barbara, depicted musically with a duet of Maltby & Shire’s “There.” By the time Pendleton sang Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane’s “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life,” Austin himself had taken on the role of a gleefully caddish lover who has wronged Barbara. This conflict continued for a while, until the characters promptly (and not very plausibly) called a truce, agreeing blithely to talk about something else—namely, their respective children. In a twinkling they were back to their roles as chummy, platonic confidants. They topped off the 50-minute program with a jovial rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Old Friends.” The resolution of the earlier conflict was neither shown nor explained.

Another issue is whether the piece intends to be presentational or representational. At the show I saw, the performers seemed torn about whether they should be paying more attention to each other or to the audience. By and large, they opted for the former, but sometimes they would sing directly to the crowd. At one point, Austin interrupted the discussion about his daughter’s wedding to inform audience members that, regrettably, they wouldn’t be able attend the nuptials because too many friends and relatives had already been invited. Such isolated instances of breaking the fourth wall were disorienting.

The musical performances are often effective, although their staging could be tighter and cleaner. Neither performer has the most powerful or wide-ranging singing voice, though Pendleton famously introduced “Miracle of Miracles” in the original Broadway Fiddler on the Roof, back in 1964. However, communicating effectively through song is something both performers certainly can do. Bleier has some good comedic moments—edged with something forlorn—in her performance of Fran Landesman and Simon Wallace’s “Down.” Pendleton is especially likeable on Frank Loesser’s “More I Cannot Wish You” (sung to his absent daughter). Off to the side throughout the show is the quietly supportive pianist, musical director Paul Greenwood, who has not been given an active “Play it, Sam” sort of role in the cocktail-lounge scenario.

“Late Nights in Smoky Bars” has some charming and heartfelt moments. It would be even better if Pendleton, Bleier, and Gustern would take some time to give the show’s dramaturgical elements a much-needed overhaul, or at least a few good tweaks.

“Late Nights in Smoky Bars”
Pangea  –  May 25, July 15, 27, August 9

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. In addition to reviewing for BistroAwards.com, he contributes regularly to theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com. Other reviews and articles have appeared in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

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