**/ ***** 2 out of 5
The phenomenon that is Sex and the City (SATC)—the blockbuster HBO series which debuted in 1998 and still lingers in sequels and re-runs—divides New Yorkers into two very distinct camps: those who believe that the serial rom-com was responsible, in large part, for the demise of the New York City of old, the rough-and-tumble bohemian outpost that artists and non-conformists fled to from suburban America.
And, on the other hand, the countless young (largely) American women who suddenly found in New York a place where they could indulge their love of fashion, friendship and feckless frivolity. Ultimately, both camps were, at least in part, correct. But one thing is certain—the show was a juggernaut that made icons of its stars and millions for the brains behind it, some of whom continue to pursue the big bucks and fame to which they became so accustomed. Case in point, enter Candace Bushnell and her new one-woman show, now playing through February 6 at the Daryl Roth Theatre at Union Square . . . in partnership with Belvedere Vodka (quelle surprise!). Cosmos for the ladies and lads after the show in the “Candi Lounge” at $18 a pop.
Conceptually, it’s brilliant. Like any show with such a vast following, countless fans want to know more, more, more. And Bushnell, who wrote and stars in the production, taps right into their thirsts, starting the show by telling her acolytes, “I’ll answer some of your most burning questions, like: Was there a real Mr. Big? . . . And did I have three friends like on the TV show – a ‘Charlotte,’ a ‘Miranda,’ and a ‘Samantha’?” Total catnip. This is like Stan Lee showing up at ComicCon and dishing on his inspiration for Peter Parker.
Bushnell, who changes outfits (costume design by Lisa Zinni) at a pace worthy of Carrie, answers the phone (whose ringtone evolves with the era—from standard rotary dial to Nokia flip to iPhone) with a chirpy “Good news only!” that gets old after the first ten times and lounges on a stylish sofa on a set (Anna Louizos) that more resembles the shoe department at Bloomingdale’s rather than an actual human’s living room. For us she does the deep dive (with help from a sort of Powerpoint-style presentation): her humble beginnings, in which our hero arrives in New York City (from an upper-class Connecticut town) with just a $20 bill, a suitcase and the phone number of an unnamed Pulitzer Prize winning author she met when he made an appearance at her alma mater (Rice University).
She and the writer immediately fall into a relationship and she moves into his midtown penthouse apartment, saving her, to hear her tell it, from a rough and tumble life on the gritty streets of 1970s New York. These lines are hard to swallow. For those who did actually struggle in their beginnings in the city, living in cold water flats and eating ketchup soup, the confabulation is insulting.
The main takeaway from Bushnell’s story is that she was a talented, if superficial writer (she wrote a lot of those famous Cosmopolitan magazine articles in the 1980s about women’s orgasms), who identifies as a feminist (and a fashionista), claims to have found male dominated industries turning her away at every opportunity (a strange conceit, considering the publishing industry in New York has long been one staffed by many more women than most other businesses) and succeeded because of her drive and lucky timing. Bushnell was fortunate that her story about a woman and her three different friends (or the four different sides of a single woman, as I’ve always viewed the concept) was perfectly timed for a moment in American history wherein young women began to have more independence and sexual agency. SATC was a talisman that these women, already on that path, could cling to.
While fans of the show and Bushnell will be delighted by the peek behind the scenes the show offers, regular, the less-devoted will be less impressed. While director Lorin Latarro does an admiral job with the material at hand, she would have done well to have an actor or comedian perform Bushnell’s story. Like most writers, her acting is at best amateurish and at worst hard-to-witness. A comic or established actor could have better managed the timing and tone and delivered a far more entertaining and nuanced performance.
But since she posed the question in her title, one has to wonder if, indeed, there is “still sex in the city.” And the question, in the context of her narrative is a tough one. Considering that the handful of stories about sexual adventures she tells range from cringey to just plain sad, it’s doubtful. Whereas her Samantha character genuinely enjoys sexual adventure and has a healthy and curious libido, Candi (as she calls herself in her youth), seems only interested in sex as a subject for stories (to wit: the highlight of her story about attending a famous New York swing club is the photo she takes outside wearing an expensive pair of boots); and she seems to have an almost pathological obsession with her “flat” breasts. Few, if any, of her stories about sex come from a place of joy or excitement. Considering her lifelong focus on becoming a famous writer (she fanatically discusses where on the New York Times best seller list each of her books reached—her most recent didn’t make the list and barely sold at all) her titular question should perhaps have been “Is There Still Success in the City?” Alas, the answer probably would be no.