Ute Lemper sizzles at the Café Carlyle and Sam Harris soars at Joe's Pub but, as far as Barbara and Scott are concerned, Aphrodisiac flunks at PS 122.
How many entertainers would even think of opening an act with a song of high drama like "Pirate Jenny" (Weill/Brecht)? Dangerous and dicey, Lemper is a singer who thrives on taking chances. Some of them work, such as an astonishing, epic number titled "Munchausen" (Hollaender), while others are arrows that miss their target, such as her overdone version of "The Ladies Who Lunch" (Sondheim). But, even when she fails, you have to admire her guts.
An uncompromising artist, she is much the same when performing uptown or downtown. And what is she exactly? Riveting! Lemper will be at the Café Carlyle through February 26.
Sam a Lot
Sam Harris is a paradox; at least, that's how we see him. He breaks every single rule by which we judge the quality of a cabaret act. We should despise him as a performer -- yet we find him brilliant and thrilling.
For instance, Harris often talks in the middle of a song, which we normally hate, but his patter is so smart and funny that it actually improves his performance of the number. And though we usually can't stand it when singers add extra syllables to a word in order to show off their vocalese, when Harris does this he somehow enhancing the lyric, infusing it with interpretation rather than destroying it. Although we usually prefer a more theatrical style of singing, we enjoy his pop approach to songs. Why? The answer is that if a performer is really outstanding, he or she can transcend your usual taste. And Sam Harris is outstanding.
He blew into town recently and did only one show at Joe's Pub, packing the place. We hope that he'll be back soon. In fact, we hear that negotiations are already in progress for a return visit -- a run, not a one-night stand -- later this year. We hope that works out; Harris is an exciting, high-energy entertainer with a sharp sense of humor and a voice to die for.
You'll see some first-class acting in a second-class play titled Aphrodisiac at P.S 122. Rob Handel's new work is written from the point of view of the son and daughter of a U.S. Congressman who is under investigation for the abduction and murder of a beautiful young intern with whom he had been having an affair.
The plot, of course, is inspired by a true story. It also requires that you read your program; otherwise there's no way you could possibly know that the two characters you first meet are not who you think they are. They are, in fact, the son and daughter of the Congressman at the center of the plot. Confused and troubled, the kids are playing the roles of their father and the intern, trying to understand what might have happened. The premise is ridiculous. Real people don't do this; actors do.
The performances of Thomas Jay Ryan and Jennifer Dundas have some real fire as the characters of the Congressman and the intern fight in a secluded restaurant. But as soon as we realized the artificial construction of the work, we began to feel jerked around by the playwright. There is some amusing name-dropping in the play and great chemistry between Ryan and Dundas as siblings, but the actors can't do it alone. They are saddled with one pointless role-playing gambit after another as they pretend to be their father, their mother, the missing intern, etc. When they finally run into another famous intern, Monica Lewinsky (Alison Weller) -- well, i's just too much!
Dundas's delicate bone structure matches her sensitive performance, particularly when she's playing the young Washington intern out of her depth. Ryan lends some emotional depth to the role of the Congressman even as the fellow emerges as a monster. We only wish that, when these two actors reappear as the Congressman's kids, they had something more worthy to play.
Ken Rus Schmoll directs the piece with a stylish awareness of time and space, never letting it become static and yet never moving the actors just for the sake of movement. Still, the show ultimately feels like an acting exercise inspired less by the news than by a fascination with role playing games.