Club Review: Natasha Bergman and Eli Greenhoe’s “Bergman & Bloustein”
In the stand-up comic tradition in America, most of the duo acts have been made up of men: Martin & Lewis, Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy, Rowan & Martin, and so many others. The number diminishes greatly when one moves on to duos made up of a man and a woman but the few that come to mind are major comedy forces in entertainment history: Burns & Allen, Nichols & May, and (most apropos here) Stiller & Meara. While the male/male twosomes leaned heavily on broad, often physical humor, the mixed couples tended to be more cerebral, relying on wit and wordplay far more often than slapstick.
The shadow of the great Jerry Stiller and Ann Meara looms over the new show, Bergman & Bloustein, which debuted recently on Manhattan’s Lower East Side at The Parkside Lounge, a room that looks more suited for a folk or rock concert or a poetry slam. But cabaret has an honorable tradition of popping up in unexpected places and this show sits solidly in that tradition. I bring up that shadow in the most positive light possible. I was a big fan of Stiller & Meara and I was pleasantly reminded of them throughout the evening. Presented by Tweed Theatreworks, the show is still developing but already offered great promise to bring a comedy tradition into a new era for a new generation. The brainchild of Natasha Bergman and Eli Greenhoe, Bergman & Bloustein presented two millennials dealing with modern life in much the same way Stiller & Meara confronted, exposed, and fed off of “real life” in the ’60s and ’70s. The targets might have changed with the times but in wit, energy, and talent, they are the offspring of those that came before, with the added perk of delightful musical, lyrical, and vocal ability.
Bergman and Bloustein discovered in the course of the hour how slavishly dependent they have become and how shaped their lives have been made by social media with its unrealistic expectations, demands, and subtle warping of human nature. In description, it sounds derivative and a bit heavy, but the humor is constant, fresh and smart, filled with solid writing and surprising observations. Their charm is immediately apparent in their opening number, appropriately titled “Welcome to the Show,” and their subsequent greeting in which they confess, “We only invited people we know…hello, dad!” They made known their wish to be viewed as “…two people who are pleasant to be near.” Cellphones appeared almost immediately, and the set-up offered a glimpse of the pressing problems those tiny screens pile on in a very funny “She’s Me, But Better.” All the pitfalls of a life lived in tweets and posts and emojis were highlighted—the admiration, the jealousy, the inspiration, the envy, and the pressure to compare and live up to unreal expectations. One response to the onslaught was offered in the next number, “Bare Minimum,” extolling the joys of doing as little as possible at work, at play, with relatives, with romance, with anything—even performing. At this point, an uneasy blurring between the creators and their creations began to creep in. I began to hope they would jettison the narrative construct and simply share their comedic observations as themselves rather than tying themselves into narrative knots.
That hope became a desperate plea as they jumped into the centerpiece of the evening—their sessions with an online therapist/guru/charlatan named Joe. The big “reveal” was that Joe is portrayed by a black sock/hand puppet with googly eyes, voiced for the most part by Bergman in a heavy-handed, vaudevillian growl that owed too much to Triumph the Insult Dog and seemed constantly at odds with the au courant set up and content. While such an out-of-the-box conceit might have offered some comment and contrast in other circumstances, here it muddied the comedic waters and landed with a thud. The situation did not improve when, later, the sock migrated to Greenhoe’s hand. There were so many incompatible levels and styles happening at once that it became a bothersome case of self-sabotage. This was a shame because through it all, their charm and talent remained apparent above all the misguided clutter. “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe” was nicely sung by Bergman, but did little to salvage the unfortunate detour.
I breathed a sigh of relief whenever the sock was jettisoned and the two got back to business just as I shuddered a bit on the inside whenever it made a return. “Can You Venmo Me a Smile” had a classic, bluesy groove and sharp wordplay with ingenious use of, and rhymes for, everything from Zelle and the Cash App to Western Union. “Salami Nightmare” was a funny double-entendre contemplation of meat in all its forms, which led into a bit of klezmer-infused insanity (complete with accordion) called “I Wanna Be a Ham”; it might have benefited from another pass or two in rehearsal before presentation, but it worked. The food fancies reached their pinnacle in a hilarious, vaguely country-western lament, “Cheeseboard of Shattered Dreams” which was as funny as any special material I have heard in cabaret this year.
Bergman’s accordion returned for “To the IRS,” a delightful pop/blues confection, but all of a sudden it took the show out of its shakily established world and it was Bergman & Greenhoe performing rather than Bergman & Bloustein. As I indicated earlier, I would not have been opposed at all to an evening of the former but, for better or for worse, they had taken pains all night to set up that world. Once again combining a beautiful blend of honest vocal talent and style with flashes of humor and craziness, Bergman offered a gorgeously silly torch song called “You’re Awkward but I Like You.” Harkening back to the “bare minimum” advice, the show closed with a funny apologia entitled “It’s Not Our Fault.”
Not many shows could survive the calamitous sock puppet and it left me eager to see how the act progresses in future engagements, but that’s how I felt about Bergman & Bloustein. The laughs, the music, the charm, and the style of these two is legitimate, and time and seasoning should get them to the heights occupied by the comedy duos that have preceded them.
Presented at The Parkside Lounge, 317 E. Houston St., NYC, on May 12, 2023.
About the Author
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”