Wake Bening! She’s Bombed … Three Reasons to Hit the Town

Wake Bening! She’s Bombed

Written and directed by quirky Neil Jordan ( The Butcher Boy ) and starring the mesmerizing Annette Bening (I wonder if Warren Beatty really deserves her), In Dreams filled me with so much anticipation, I couldn’t imagine a better way to get 1999 off to a smashing start. Now that I’ve seen it, I say we have nowhere to go but up.

In this lurid psychological thriller, a wacko serial killer (Robert Downey Jr. on another bad hair day) possesses the mind of a neurotic psychic (Ms. Bening, proving she can do junk films as well as the next wasted talent in Hollywood) and everyone comes to a bad end, including the audience. The gifted and charming star plays a once-prominent illustrator of Grimm’s fairy tales turned mother and wife (of pilot Aidan Quinn) whose quiet life by a New England lake turns ugly when she suffers from continual nightmares. Mr. Downey’s homicidal maniac is on the loose in the nearby woods, kidnapping and murdering little girls, and Ms. Bening sees it all in her mind. When her own daughter is plucked away from a gruesome school play about Snow White–that appears to have been written by Bram Stoker and directed by F.W. Murnau–the screams in her dreams hit closer to home. By the time the child is fished out of the lake like a pile of seaweed, it’s too late for over-the-counter dual-relief Unisom.

The killer invades her subconscious, then her computer, then her life. Her husband doesn’t believe her. The cops think she’s a

real Section 8, ready for a straitjacket. She slashes her wrists and ends up in a lunatic asylum, in the same padded cell from which the killer himself escaped years ago. (Ms. Bening is quite feisty, even while crawling the walls with her hair chopped off like Glenda Jackson.) But where is this lurid trash, wallowing in terrifying excess, going, with its close-ups of apples and blood and children chained to their beds in rooms filling with water?

Ms. Bening, in a Thorazine stupor, is finally lured to the killer’s hiding place (a deserted apple orchard that still produces thousands of luscious varieties without an ounce of insecticide!) where Mr. Downey, in a red dress, lipstick, high heels and wigs that make Psycho ‘s Norman Bates look as harmless as the Good Humor man, is terrorizing his latest nubile victim. He plays Mommy, then she plays Mommy, then he plays son, and the loopy Freudian absurdity of it all is positively stultifying. While all of this bizarre S&M is going on, poor Aidan Quinn gets eaten by the family dog. Stephen Rea, who starred in the director’s famous film The Crying Game , plays a psychiatrist who almost goes bonkers himself, and I don’t blame him. By the time the two stars fall off a bridge into an underwater city destroyed years ago by a flood, you don’t know what to do first–yawn, raise an eyebrow, or laugh out loud. I did all three.

With this cast and Neil Jordan at the helm, I expected more. But even on the level of your basic paranormal potboiler, In Dreams is a numbing and delusional disaster. Shot at so many odd angles it looks like life in a Coney Island fun-house mirror, it’s too pretentious to be scary. Lit almost entirely in shadows, you rarely have enough light to discern the dreams from the reality. Mixing the metaphysical spiritual gloom of Peter Weir with the murky mumbo jumbo of Neil Jordan’s worst films ( Interview With the Vampire springs to mind), it’s a lame duck that should send a number of overpaid agents to the unemployment lines. Maybe I do know what Warren Beatty did to deserve Annette Bening, but what did Annette Bening do to deserve In Dreams ?

Three Reasons to Hit the Town

Some extraordinary talents are ushering in the musical New Year with a bang and flourish on the cabaret scene. Buddy Greco, a polished practitioner of the fading art of saloon singing, is celebrating his 50th year in show business with a rare and welcome appearance at the Algonquin Hotel’s famed Oak Room. He has come out with a new CD, Like Young , and by the time we reach the millennium there will be a new book and a television movie about the life of this underrated singer-pianist pal of Frank Sinatra who has been playing jazz piano since the age of 4.

On Like Young , Mr. Greco swings with a humongous orchestra in full-bodied arrangements of such staples as “I Can’t Get Started” and “My Romance.” At the Algonquin–without his usual glitzy Vegas showgirls and big-band throttle–we get an uncommon opportunity to see him work with an intimate trio, in the kind of relaxed setting audiences were accustomed to in the halcyon days of Manhattan night life 30 years ago, and it’s a pleasure to add he’s performing better than ever. Just Buddy Greco, swinging and singing at the eighty-eights, taking a few requests, sharing anecdotes about Frank and Sammy and Dean and the Rat Pack, and even resurrecting a few of his early recorded hits–corny audience-pleasers like “I Left My Sugar in the Rain.” A good time is had by all, including Mr. Greco himself, who says often, “I haven’t done that one since 1960.”

He’s been snapping his fingers so long some people may have forgotten how accomplished his playing can be. From the surprising midchorus section on “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” to the speeding-train tempo of an unusually upbeat “I’ll Remember April,” he constantly stuns and reduces the ringsiders at the Oak Room to oohs and ahs. Heavily influenced by Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, Mr. Greco can switch from a jaunty stride to hard-driving melodic swinging in a few chords. The incredible riffs on “I Can’t Get Started” prove that if he ever loses his chops, he can earn his living in gold, just playing with passion and informed precision. On mediocre pop tunes like “The Summer Wind” and “MacArthur Park” (fortunately, with the silly, psychedelic lyrics missing) his skills begin to seem less astonishing, but for most of this warm, witty appearance, he explores a variety of moods and tempos with accomplished panache. In the cold of a January night, Buddy Greco is a hearty antidote to the winter blahs.

In her sparkling new act at the merlot-colored Firebird Cafe, vivacious KT Sullivan, Oklahoma’s pride and joy, proves what a long way from Will Rogers’ plains she’s come. The show is called “Noël, Cole and Bart” and is, quite naturally, a cornucopia of prime, patrician songs by Messrs. Coward, Porter and Howard. These are the kinds of songs Mabel Mercer used to sing–the finely crafted pearls of great wit, intelligence and musical sophistication I used to hear in rooms like L’Intrigue, R.S.V.P. and the Blue Angel. Mabel is gone now and the memory grows dim, but Ms. Sullivan keeps the flame at her altar burning brightly. She’s not old enough in years to remember how privileged New Yorkers were to sit around in exalted clusters at 2 A.M., listening and learning from Mabel about the art of song. But Ms. Sullivan is quite prepared in terms of compassion, enthusiasm and good taste. From Howard’s piercing “Walk-Up” and “It Was Worth It,” a raspberry to growing old that he wrote for Mabel’s 50th birthday, to Noël Coward’s hilarious 1945 obscurity “That Is the End of the News,” you are in for some delicious surprises.

Sifting through the peculiar individualities of these three cherished tunesmiths, Ms. Sullivan finds amazing parallels and similarities. This sleuthing pays off in the alternative lyrics Porter and Coward wrote for “Let’s Do It.” It’s an even toss as to which composer was more clever. And Howard’s “Who Besides You,” inspired by Gertrude Lawrence, could easily have been penned by either Coward or Porter. Noël’s jaded style is perfectly represented by “World Weary” and “Weary of It All,” both introduced by Bea Lillie, belying the fact that this lonely, tortured man was not, as the songs suggest, surrounded by smoke and parties and empty laughter between naps.

As curvaceous as she is kittenish, Ms. Sullivan sashays her fanny and bats her eyes like a pubescent Mae West trying to find the ladies’ room, too myopic to find her way but too proud to ask for directions. She kids sex like an undulating, thumb-sucking Lolita, but she knows exactly what she’s doing musically, rhyming an entire glossary of medical terms on Porter’s “The Physician” with physiological delight, then breaking your heart on Howard’s “Perfect Stranger.” The heart that beats within her bra has an obvious fondness for songs that are unusual and underexposed, but she’s not unfamiliar with the tried and true–Howard’s “Fly Me to the Moon” is prominently featured, with historical footnotes. Ditto Coward’s “Mad About the Boy” and a vibrant melody from Porter’s score for Kiss Me, Kate . She’s running through Jan. 23. Catch her before she runs away. You’ll be ever so glad you did.

In its new late-night policy, the Firebird has extended an open-ended invitation to another excellent performer, singer-pianist Daryl Sherman, who is packing them in on Restaurant Row for her midnight soirées. She’s lovely, talented and a walking encyclopedia of great songs. Where else can you drop in for a nightcap and hear a beautiful woman crooning “Autumn in Rome”? I stayed for a couple of enlightening hours the other night and heard songs by Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh, Hoagy Carmichael, Ira Gershwin, Harry Warren, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn, Vernon Duke and Irving Berlin, deftly played and effortlessly sung with uncluttered emotional directness that left everyone clamoring for more. For the price of a cocktail or two, Daryl Sherman is the brightest, most attractive mellow-mood music bargain in town. Ms. Sherman’s march through midnight Manhattan takes no prisoners, but she’s captured us all.