I’m Not a Comedian. . . I’m Lenny Bruce
Photo Credit Doren Sorell
by Deirdre Donovan
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
. .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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Editor's note: Show now has an opening act—a quite terrific burlesque artist named Pearls Daily who happens to be the reigning Miss Coney Island. Also the show has grown, and the Box is a wonderful classy place to see it.
now available through December 30th
at 44 East 32nd Street in Murray Hill, Manhattan
more information and tickets, phone 212-691.1900
visit online www.thecuttingroomnyc.com.
time: 90 minutes with no intermission