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I’m Not a Comedian. . . I’m Lenny Bruce


Photo Credit Doren Sorell

 

 

 

                     by Deirdre Donovan

 

Part biodrama, part confessional, part stand-up comedy, actor-playwright Ronnie Marmo takes the stage at the Cutting Room and gives us a searing portrait of Lenny Bruce in his one-man show I’m Not a Comedian. . .I’m Lenny Bruce.  Marmo doesn’t just impersonate the stand-up comic and social satirist, he allows you to see what made him tick as an artist and why he still matters today.

 

Born Leonard Alfred Schneider on October 13, 1925, he was better known by his stage name of Lenny Bruce.  Marmo traces the life and death of the American comedian who became famous for sprinkling his shows with four-letter words and vulgarities. He also allows us to see Bruce in the light of the twenty-first century.  This is the first stage drama, at least to my knowledge, about Bruce in the new millennium.  It premiered in Los Angeles last year and ran for 15 months with favorable notices.

 

Bruce’s autobiography, How to Talk Dirty & Influence People, is one of the sources for this one-man show.  And, unsurprisingly, the play exposes one to a hefty swath of Bruce’s trenchant language.  But if it sometimes comes across as shocking, it also underscores that the uninhibited comedian was fiercely fighting for free speech.  Indeed, Bruce would be arrested repeatedly during his career during the early 60s on obscenity charges.  Although we learn in this show that he didn’t always win his battles, he would fight all the way to the Supreme Court to argue his constitutional right for it.

 

When the piece succeeds, and much of the time it does, it succeeds when Marmo conveys something new about Bruce that hasn’t been recycled from the 1971 Broadway show Lenny or the 1974 film of the same name.  Take Bruce’s 2003 gubernatorial pardon, which Marmo poignantly relates in one scene with just enough detail and feeling. 

 

Bruce’s ex-wife Honey lobbied the then-governor George Pataki, persuading him to pardon Bruce for his obscenity conviction arising from a 1964 gig at the Café au Go Go in Greenwich Village.  And we hear word for word in this show how Pataki lauded Bruce for his courage as a comedian:  “Freedom of speech is one of the greatest American liberties, and I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of our precious freedom.”

 

Marmo insinuates himself into several personas during the show.  But most of the time, he inhabits Bruce, who Kenneth Tynan once dubbed a night-club Cassandra.  Yes, Bruce was, first and last, a truth-teller.  He rubbed people’s noses in the words they said over dinner, on the stoop, in the bedroom, in smoky nightclubs.

 

It’s no accident that the show has settled into the Cutting Room, a nightclub in Murray Hill.  Joe Mantegna, who helms the production, is quoted in my press materials as being pleased with the “unconventional choice of theater for this play”

. . .as “it puts the audience into the environment in which Lenny worked.”  No question that the Cutting Room adds ambience and edge to the show.

 

According to a recent New York Times feature article, audience members have reportedly been known to “talk back” to Marmo during the show.  Although nobody “talked back” at the Wednesday evening show I attended, they did appear mesmerized by Marmo’s impersonation of Bruce.  Marmo, though not an exact look-alike of Bruce, does bear a clear resemblance to the artist.

 

What is most striking sometimes are not the dirty words that we hear Marmo’s Bruce spew out but the taboo subjects he tackles and brilliantly comments on.  Marmo re-enacts Bruce’s bit on Religions Incorporated, with all its irreverence intact.  And if one hasn’t been pulled in yet by Marmo, this sketch will hook you for sure:  “Dig this.  If the bedroom is dirty to you, then you are a true atheist. If anyone in this audience believes that God made his body, and your body is dirty, then the fault lies with the manufacturer.”  Yes, Bruce was a wizard who could couple the mysteries of the bedroom and religion at once. 

 

This isn’t a hagiography.  We discover that his marriage to the stripper Honey Harlow didn’t last.  His young daughter Kitty could be embarrassed by her famous father showing up “high” at her school plays.  Bruce, though a wizard of comedy, had a drug problem that would point him toward an early grave.  In short, this show shows you the man, warts and all.

 

Matt Richter’s evocative set and lighting conjure up the various nightclubs that Bruce performed in and the Hollywood Hills room where he died.  Lauren Winnenberg’s costumes look like replicas of outfits that Bruce has been photographed in over the years.  And Hope Bello Laroux’s sound design adds verisimilitude to the piece, particularly during the moments when Bruce is being arrested on obscenity charges.

 

Marmo’s study of Bruce takes us into some mighty dark corners.  It starts out by showing us Bruce on a toilet seat in the buff, dead by accidental overdose at age 40.  And then after giving us key episodes from his life, it seems to turn in on itself and conclude where it began.  But we leave wiser, enlightened by what Marmo has presented about Bruce.

 

One criticism.  Marmo might do well to expand his play and perhaps include a few more sketches from Bruce’s stand-up oeuvre.  Marmo mimes Bruce well in his piece, and if he inserted a few more of the icon’s famous routines, it would give us more to chew.

 

That said, I’m Lenny Bruce can speak to anybody who is concerned about the direction of democracy in the Trump era.  The play is a must-see for anyone who has ever cared about free speech and wants to see how the legendary Bruce fiercely fought for it tooth and nail with his satiric comedy.

 

Tickets now available through December 30th

The Cutting Room

Located at 44 East 32nd Street in Murray Hill, Manhattan

For more information and tickets, phone  212-691.1900

or visit online www.thecuttingroomnyc.com.

Running time:  90 minutes with no intermission