‘Morbid’ is alive with wisdom, humor, chops

Barbara Bleier and Austin Pendleton assume the guise of exes, for a holiday-themed cabaret romp. Photo by Jackie Rudin.
Barbara Bleier and Austin Pendleton assume the guise of exes, for a holiday-themed cabaret romp. Photo by Jackie Rudin.

BY TRAV S.D. | Don’t get the wrong impression from the title of the new holiday-themed cabaret show at Pangea: The overall takeaway from the charming “Tis the Season to be Morbid” — starring Austin Pendleton and Barbara Bleier — is warmth and affection, not darkness.

The premise is that the pair are playing “Austin” and “Barbara,” a couple of exes, so most of the selections in their set are about relationships that didn’t work out. The situation is fictional, it turns out — a thematic justification to hang the songs on, like so many Christmas tree ornaments; but there is still a strong undergirding of real-life past history in the show.

Pendleton is, of course, a well-known character actor with prominent credits in film, television, and the stage. He is also an in-demand stage director; he’s the former artistic director of the late, lamented Circle Rep, and a longtime teacher of acting at HB Studio. The latter affiliation is the cradle, if you will, of Pendleton’s association with longtime cabaret performer Bleier, who was one of his pupils. So, too, is the show’s director and vocal coach, Barbara Maier Gustern, who has a funny cameo turn in the show. In other words, Gustern has been Pendleton’s singing teacher, Pendleton is Gustern’s acting teacher, and they’ve both taught Bleier — and they’ve done several critically acclaimed cabaret shows together in the past (including last summer’s “Late Nights in Smoky Bars”).

Consequently, the performers have the kind of rapport and intimacy with each other that wouldn’t be out of place at a family gathering in someone’s living room. And just as when you find exes in the same space at a Christmas party, there are jibes and quips (plenty of them self-deprecating) but in the final analysis (and this show has some literal, Freudian, analysis), it’s still a festive occasion.

Those familiar with Pendleton’s sometimes mincing screen characters will be amused to know that in this show he channels the machismo of Elvis and Richard Beymer (“West Side Story”) by singing “Blue Christmas” and “Maria.” He also renders the show-stopping Lerner/Lane classic “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life?” from the 1951 musical film “Royal Wedding.”

Apart from the familiar “Jingle Bell Rock,” most of the holiday songs in the set have an ironic, funny, or dark twist, such as “All Those Christmas Cliches” (Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty), “I Don’t Remember Christmas” (Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire), “My Simple Christmas Wish” (David Freidman), and “Hard Candy Christmas” (Carol Hall).

Gustern contributes a naughty rendition of “Santa Baby,” a song made famous by Eartha Kitt. The balance of the set is made up of relationship songs of regret and reminiscence, such as Sondheim’s “Our Time,” from the ill-fated “Merrily We Roll Along,” and “Old Friend” by Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford.

In Shakespearean terms, this show is “King Lear” or “The Winter’s Tale.” The theme is maturity, and unapologetic, vulnerable maturity is what is bravely offered by these show business veterans. Memories fail, voices crack, and legs give out — but hearts still beat, and fists are still shaken in defiance of the fates. These are master performers full of wisdom, experience, humor, and chops. Far from morbid in the medical sense, they’re full of piss, vinegar, and maybe even a little jalapeño pepper. If you’re older, go and relate. If you’re young, go and learn at their feet.

Mon., Dec. 12 and Thurs., Jan. 5, 7pm, at Pangea (178 Second Ave., btw. E. 11th & E. 12th Sts.). Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 (cash only) at the door. $20 food or drink table minimum, per person. For reservations, visit pangeanyc.com or call 212-995-0900.