NEW YORK — In a hip restaurant in Lower Manhattan, a young waitress approaches the table just as the conversation turns to some of the racier stories that punctuate Alan Cumming's cabaret act, "I Bought a Blue Car Today." The decibel level immediately drops to a discreet hush.
"Shhhhh," says the 44-year-old actor sardonically. "We're in the East Village. Mustn't shock the locals."
After the waitress leaves, Cumming is asked whether the show, which premiered last year at New York's Lincoln Center and had recent runs in Sydney and London, will still contain such frankly sexual material when he takes it to the Orange County Performing Arts Center and the Geffen Playhouse.
"More so!" he exclaims puckishly of his picaresque tales of arriving on these shores from Britain, of his amusing, often ribald encounters with celebrityhood, his relationships with men and women and his adoption of American citizenship. (The show's odd title comes from a sentence proffered in the naturalization exam meant to demonstrate prowess in English.)
Indeed, Cumming's response is exactly what might be expected from someone who was introduced to this country in 1998 through his Tony-winning turn as the scabrous emcee in the Sam Mendes-Rob Marshall revival of "Cabaret." While Cumming has played his share of classical roles in an extraordinarily eclectic career -- including a star-making turn as "Hamlet" in London -- his dominant image has been that of a naughty scamp. Cumming has nurtured this through playing a variety of louche characters -- Dionysus, Mack the Knife, the devil -- in theater and film; penning a semiautobiographical novel, "Tommy's Tale," about a sex-obsessed, drug-ridden bisexual; and starring in a provocative campaign promoting the fragrance line that bears his last name. It seemed only natural then when director Julie Taymor tapped Cumming to be the villainous Green Goblin in "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," the widely anticipated mega-musical whose financial woes have interrupted its march to Broadway. "It's on again," says Cumming. More on that later.
What may surprise audiences, however, about "Blue Car" -- which opens Saturday at OCPAC for two performances before playing the Geffen from Tuesday through Oct. 4 -- is the romantic tenderness that characterizes its musical choices. "It's not just me showing my knickers," he says with a laugh. Included in the show -- which is also a CD by the same name -- are songs of love, loss and yearning by such songwriters as John Bucchino ("A Catered Affair"), William Finn ("Falsettos") and pop singer Jimmy Webb as well as originals by Cumming himself with his musical director, Lance Horne.
"I guess I am willing to wear my heart on my sleeve more than people think," says Cumming in the soft burr that betrays his upbringing in the Scottish countryside, the son of an estate manager. "My mum calls it 'couthy,' which is sort of being affectionate, emotional, not afraid to shed a tear. I sense that when I sing Dory Previn's 'I Dance and Dance and Smile and Smile,' if I hit it right, the audience sort of reacts. 'Whoa, I didn't know we were getting this. . . .' "
In fact, Cumming up close and personal also seems a departure from his popular image. He giggles a lot, whispers self-deprecating asides and makes even the raunchiest stories seem innocent. At one point, he pulls at his chic shirt because it is pinching him. "The problem with free clothes is that you don't really know what you're getting," he says with a grimace.
Cumming maintains, however, that the goal of "Blue Car" has never been to change his image in the minds of either critics or an audience. "It's funny, that," he muses, clearly intrigued by the notion. "Some of the criticism which the show received in England was because they thought I was too sentimental, that I had gone too American. 'Come back, Alan,' and all that sort of stuff. But I don't care. I don't care what people. . . . I mean, I care deeply about what I'm doing. But that's not why I did it. I did it for myself."
The genesis of the show and the album was sparked when Lincoln Center invited him last year to be part of their cabaret series at the Allen Room. He was hesitant at first. The prospect of performing in front of an audience without a character to hide behind -- and as a singer at that -- was daunting. He answered the challenge, he says, like the Scotch Calvinist he says he is.
"I had to do it, it was something I've been wanting to do for a while," he says. "I was scared. It's been horrifying. I've been in musicals, but I'm no singer. The weight of expectations . . . the more well known you are, the more potential you have to disappoint. And here I am, just this little person named Alan, telling stories and singing songs."