Where Ya Been, Polly Bergen? … Do-Gooders Do Badly

Where Ya Been, Polly Bergen?

Polly Bergen is Mother Courage in sequins. She’s carried all the torches, fought all the wars, bridged all the generation gaps and surpassed all the trends. Now, for the first time on a nightclub stage in 35 years, she is giving a graduate course in how to survive with style. The setting is Feinstein’s at the Regency, where she is making something roughly equivalent to a “comeback” through Oct. 21 with elegance, glamour, panache, guts, talent and an abundance of the kind of class that, in the age of hip-hop, has become practically subversive. Pouring her musical heart out to a standing-room-only opening-night audience of movie stars, movie moguls, millionaires, socialites, expense-account Wall Streeters and even one ex-husband, she didn’t rent the space. She owned it.

The ovations began before she even hit the spotlight. The voice, lush and husky in the lower register and powerful as a shiny new trumpet on the upswing, belts out a greeting from the dark on Jerry Herman’s “It’s Today” from Mame , and there she is, smiling in Cinemascope, coiffed and gowned and camera-ready. What follows is a meticulous act that blends the old and the new, classic standards and jive-ass contemporary works alike, in an eclectic display of polish, humor, professionalism and what Kay Thompson called “bazazz.”

Surprisingly, the brandy-soaked torch songs that won her an Emmy in the “live” 1957 Playhouse 90 production of The Helen Morgan Story arrived early. With a half-gel spotlight on her face, she perched on top of a grand piano singing “Why Was I Born?” and “Bill” and broke hearts by the score. Here is a skillful actress capable of shifting moods on a dime, with an expressive cover-girl face, mature yet vulnerable, that conveys every emotion: tragic one minute, raunchy and mischievous the next. From an unproduced production of The Great Gatsby , there’s a show-stopping number by Lee Pockriss and the great lyricist Carolyn Leigh called “Sooner or Later They All Come Home” that rocks the joint. From the rocket pace of “I Don’t Remember Christmas (And I Don’t Remember You)” and the enormous poignancy of Portia Nelson’s “It’s the Little Things,” to the battered, been-there wisdom of Janis Ian’s “Stars,” a completely original spin on Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch,” and a few a cappella bars of Leon Russell’s “A Song For You” that lead cleverly into a passionate “Without a Song”-every composition is explored for maximum impact, with no-nonsense eyes, hands gesturing only when needed for emphasis, and the discipline and concentration of a singing Duse.

A wild card shuffled from the bottom of the deck called “He Ain’t Mr. Right (But He’s Mr. Right Now)” proved she’s hip to the new songwriters of today. Grafting “Here’s That Rainy Day” onto the hauntingly obscure “Where’s That Boy I Saved for a Rainy Day,” she reduced a number of jaded cynics to tears, and on her signature song, “The Party’s Over,” she proved she has not only forgotten nothing but gained insight and depth in the years since she first made it a hit. Incapable of making one false or superficial move, her patter is warm and personal, her voice is rich and burnished with the ripeness of aged burgundy, her phrasing is thrilling, and with every song she exudes the worldly wisdom and meticulous self-assurance that only comes with experience. You smile, you applaud, you beam with the knowledge that this is how it ought to be done. With a voice that is surer and more musical than ever and a flair for getting to the heart of a lyric, she is, at 70, a show-business revelation.

The reason folks who don’t mind forking over a month’s rent for one meal in a trendy restaurant but wouldn’t set foot inside a cabaret at gunpoint are lining up to see Polly Bergen is obvious. They demand the very best, and she is giving it to them in spades. In 1965, when she threw in the towel and turned her curvaceous back on an illustrious singing career, the C-word (as “cabaret” is now known) was just a term used to describe the cellars of postwar Berlin. Those were the good old days when New York was ablaze with supper clubs like the Persian Room and the Empire Room, and Ms. Bergen was a star attraction in every one of them. She did her time on Broadway, toiled in the tinsel factories of Hollywood, played second fiddle to Martin and Lewis, co-starred with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear , made television history, became a cosmetics tycoon, retired to a ranch in Montana.

But like the show-stopping song she will sing in next season’s Broadway revival of Follies , she’s still here. The beauty is ageless, and the discipline, preparation and hard work have paid off in a nightclub act you’d be a fool to miss. Polly Bergen is back with a vengeance, New York is her oyster, and the only question that remains is: What took her so long?

Do-Gooders Do Badly

It must be humiliating for Kevin Spacey to follow his practically heroic performance in the award-winning American Beauty with one that finds him napping in a sloppy, ludicrous melodrama like Pay It Forward . But he’s not the only one blushing. This mindless waste of time diminishes the reputations of a number of other notables, too.

The most benevolent thing one can do is dispense with the dopey particulars fast. Mr. Spacey plays an odd, deformed seventh-grade schoolteacher in Las Vegas whose face and body are covered with burn scars. Withdrawn except when he faces a class of Hollywood moppets who talk like Snoopy and Little Lulu, he cheerfully challenges them to come up with one idea that will make the world a better place. Haley Joel Osment, the saucer-eyed Munchkin from The Sixth Sense , is a precocious 11-year-old who hatches a plan to help three needy, disenfranchised people who, instead of paying back the kindness, must “pay it forward” by helping three others, and on and on, until the whole human race is smiling like Disney cows. It’s like one of those dreaded e-mails promising health and money if you take the time to forward the message to 10 more people you know will never speak to you again. The title Pay It Forward is so convoluted that the writers have every character repeat it a dozen times.

The chain of Good Samaritans selected to change the world include a homeless junkie (James Caviezel) who repairs a truck and saves a woman from leaping from a bridge; the boy’s alcoholic strip-club-waitress mom (Helen Hunt), who helps the schoolteacher by forcing him to show her his scars in bed; the child’s deplorable bag-lady grandmother (luscious Angie Dickinson, sabotaged by villainous makeup men), who lives on gin in a deserted railway yard; an obnoxious reporter (Jay Mohr); and a galaxy of superfluous walk-ons too boring to mention.

While the “pay it forward” movement spreads, the characters intersect at bogus, contrived angles in a film of implausible situations, jerky editing, long, dull scenes, superficial dialogue, unruly plot twists and a sappy, tragic ending that renders everything that has gone before it pointless. But why beat around the bush? This movie, slovenly directed without style or substance by a refugee from TV named Mimi Leder, is just plain awful. I shall now “pay it forward” myself and make the world a better place by warning all and sundry to avoid Pay It Forward before an infection spreads.

Next Best Thing to a Free Lunch

More doin’s in the ruins. Sally Mayes, a bright-eyed, multi-faceted raspberry parfait in a pink flapper outfit with Dale Evans fringe, is back at the FireBird Café celebrating highlights of the decade since she first blew in from Texas like a tornado.

In only 10 years, she has recorded several CD’s, starred in musicals by Sheldon Harnick, Maltby & Shire, Cy Coleman and others, and become a major cabaret star. Equally comfortable with show tunes, jazz and country & western ditties, she explores her primitive impulses with “Prehistoric Man,” a violent affair Comden and Green wrote for Ann Miller in the movie version of On the Town ; wrenches the emotions with “Like a Baby” (one of those brilliant Maltby-Shire arias more singers should discover), and swings the hell out of Jon Hendricks’ jazz classic “Cloudburst,” a tongue-twister you can’t attempt after eating peanut butter. In this marvelously paced and musically versatile act, you get welcome doses of Dorothy Fields, Jimmy McHugh, Cy Coleman, Jule Styne, Burt Bacharach, Amanda McBroom and even insane Al Yankovic from a singer’s singer with an awesome range and a big fat heart. Sally Mayes has a lot to give, and she gives it all she’s got.

A final heads up: There’s no better way to spend a lunch hour than the noonday “Food for Thought” showcase of one-act plays by illustrious playwrights currently packing them in at the Producers Club, 358 West 44th Street. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, for a $25 contribution, you get a delicious catered lunch, free soft drinks and plays by Tony Kushner, Peter Stone, John Ford Noonan, Edward Pomerantz, Susan Charlotte and others. I’ve been twice already. I saw Rita Moreno play a dozen characters with as many accents in a new comedy by Mr. Kushner about how to cheat the Internal Revenue Service, and incandescent performances by Cliff Robertson and Estelle Parsons in Commercial Break , a Peter Stone play that began as a monologue for Audrey Hepburn in Charade that landed on the cutting-room floor and grew into a two-character piece about a neglected wife who challenges her advertising-executive husband to use the time and energy he wastes on deodorants, toothpaste and hair sprays to write a commercial for a failing marriage.

In the weeks ahead, the popular series- which has been expanded through Nov. 27-will feature Blair Brown, Kate Burton, Marlo Thomas, Judith Light, Anne Meara, Ron Rifkin, John Shea, Judith Ivey, Robert LuPone and others. It’s the best bargain in town. For reservations and information, call 362-2560.

Where Ya Been, Polly Bergen? … Do-Gooders Do Badly