Once the audience is seated for the second night of Sandra Bernhard’s one-woman show, “I love being me, don’t you?,” a representative of The Painted Bride comes out to warm up the crowd. She shares a story about the night before: Sandra had expressed in no uncertain terms her disapproval of the on-stage carpet to her opening night audience, and here, just one day later, a more acceptable carpet had been donated to the venue for Sandra to stand and perform upon. The woman jokes that maybe Sandra could extend her ire to the lobby, so that a benefactor would be compelled to donate something to spruce that space up, too. The message is clear: When Sandra talks, people listen. The “or else” is implicit in the fact of her presence. She’s intense.
That intensity is part of what causes people to refer to Bernhard as “edgy,” and it’s true that there is an element of danger to a Sandra Bernhard performance. She toys with her audience like a cat; there are sharp ends involved. One moment she’s tussling her hair, glamorous and disarming and maybe even a little flirty, the next she’s breathing fire and spitting tacks, and when she zeroes in on a target, no one is safe: Not Iman, not Bristol Palin, not Cindy Crawford, not Barbra, not Forever 21, not GLEE, not Tyra Banks, not Michele Bachman, not Bernhard’s own daughter, not her backing band, not the sound guy, not even her audience escapes unscathed. “I’m not going to coddle you,” she warns. And she doesn’t.
Nonetheless, Bernhard’s tough love comes with tender moments, such as her segue from a story about meeting Kristin Chenowith to the opening strains of “Before the Parade Passes By.” Elsewhere, Sandra, along with her backing musicians, performs covers of Foster the People and REO Speedwagon, as well as a relatively obscure Spanish-language song from1973’s Eurovision festival that she says “changed her life forever.” And she means it, maybe? Sandra performs herself with so much gusto it can be hard to know what’s exaggerated and what’s just raw. Even the title of her show is blithely ambiguous.
There are times when Bernhard’s sardonic pronouncements can chafe. I’ve never considered myself one of Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters,” but when Bernhard skewers Gaga’s sentimental (and yes, sometimes cloying) embrace of her gay fans by boasting that her gays are doing just fine, vacationing in Mikonos and going to circuit parties, I am literally not on board with that. But that’s Sandra. If Gaga is Mother Monster, Bernhard is One Tough Mother, and she has the parenting stories to prove it.
During other stretches of the show, Bernhard offsets her more intense moments by letting herself be loose and silly onstage. She breezes through bits about her fashion choices, her cardiologist, the royal wedding, and a satisfying evisceration of Gwyneth Paltrow with the comfortable familiarity of a college buddy; her dance moves have a studied casualness about them, and she gives herself entirely to her songs with an affecting absence of self-consciousness.
Having honed her skills as an entertainer for thirty-some odd years, Bernhard has earned her ease and confidence onstage, and for the next few days, Philadelphia has the opportunity to see that level of craft in action in an intimate setting. Don’t miss it.