Stuff or love?

When Christine Bendorf performs "The Ladies Who Lunch" -- one of Sondheim's most famous solo songs for a female -- she sneers toward the audience, her long strand of pearls both decorating and strangling her. Raising a cocktail high, she toasts an empty sisterhood of women "lounging in their caftans and planning a brunch on their own behalf."

The song is an emotional zinger -- and one of several show stoppers in "Putting It Together," the Sondheim revue running through Oct. 3 at the Ex.

"It's an incredibly famous song and so many greats in the theater world sang it before I did. I listened to them all my life. And it was very intimidating as a 21-year old performing a jaded 40-year old who lunches," said Christine. "I'm not a lady who lunches, but I know people like that."

That's the thing about Sondheim. You don't want to be like his characters (though you'd like to be able to sing like them). But there's some satisfaction in watching them writhe. They created those cushy, boozy worlds, and if their "lunches" leave them hungry, then they'll just have to do what the rest of us do: Deal.

Which is what this kick-class cast -- seniors Matt Bohrer, Walter Klyce, Adam Lathram and Jordan Reddout -- exposes onstage. And while we may not fully relate to the upper-crust crowd, who among us hasn't fallen out of love, fallen into traps, grasped for a breath of authenticity ? Sondheim holds the glass up to privilege in "Putting It Together," but, in the end, the power of the piece is not only that we know people like that but that it's possible we are people like that.

Ultimately, said director Stewart Kramer, the show comes down to one question: "What's more important: -- stuff or love? I'd like to think it's the latter."

And he's right. Sondheim believes in love. He wouldn't be writing musicals if he didn't. But he also sees the cracks into which greed falls and festers, and that's what makes his take on the "stuff or love" question so penetrating. Stewart has one answer. Christine's Lunching Lady has another.

[Caption: Putting it Together poster]