At a time when free speech is under fire, the meaning of words hotly contested, religion and race alarmingly in the forefront of news, Ronnie Marmo’s theatrical portrait of Lenny Bruce (1925-1966) couldn’t be more relevant. A beleaguered social critic before his time, a man who, in his own words, was “trying to take a scalpel to hypocrisy,” the satirist is perhaps better known for vulgarity and sexual allusion than for skewering politics and social mores. Malmo’s play not only illuminates and entertains, but gives us a glimpse at the person behind his effect.
“Lemme tell you how I got here,” begins Bruce (Ronnie Marmo). We watch as young Lenny Marsalle subs for a master of ceremonies at The Victory Club where mother Sally Marr danced. “How hard can it be to say how ‘bout a hand for those so and so folks?” Marmo plausibly conjectures that Bruce froze until a heckler evoked a caustic, ad libbed response, making the audience laugh. “And there it was… I found my voice not only as a comedian, but someone who had something to say.” (Up till then, he’d gotten nowhere as a stand-up.)
“By the way, are there any niggers here today?” the character says picking up a microphone, stepping into his act. “What did he say? Jesus Christ, he had to go that low for laughs?… There’s one nigger there. Yeah. There’s one working in the back…So that’s two kikes and two niggers…spic, wop, polack, greaseball…Dig man, it’s the suppression of the word that gives it power. The violence. The viciousness…” Here’s the performer’s trenchant approach in a nutshell. If we heard the terms casually every day, they’d have no negative effect.
What about “fuck” and “come” commonly used “to describe one of the great joys of life.” The first, he notes, is also employed to damn someone. How did that happen? “Personally the word relates to any chick I know or want to know or want to marry.” The second is shied away from. “…to is a preposition, come is a verb…” Bruce used words like H bombs. An etymologist would have a field day with these monologues. I’d venture to guess many did, though likely after we pilloried Bruce and drugs took him down.
“There have been three great loves in my life, my ma, Honey (his wife), and Kitty” (His daughter, Kitty, supports this study of her dad and has given Marmo some otherwise unshared material.) Bruce tells us about the strong influence of his take-no-prisoners mom, enacts the love at first sight relationship with stripper Honey Harlow, “a composite of The Virgin Mary and a $500 a night whore,” and refers to guilty inadequacy as a father. He’s disarmingly sincere/sympathetic, especially about marriage. (Most of the copiously researched text contains his own words.)
Between vignettes of his personal life, we’re treated to excerpts from Bruce’s acts. Malmo morphs coherently into onstage monologue. Lighting and sound subtly create atmosphere. “My act wasn’t an act at all. I wanted to be a hip version of James Dean.”
He talks about differences between men and women (we come out better), does a moving parlando soliloquy on loneliness, calls out objections to sex and violence on television…It was religion, he theorizes, that took him down in the end. “If the bedroom is dirty to you, you’re a true atheist…You have a body God made in his own image…Why is one religion better than the other?!”
Multiple arrests/court appearances are also depicted, from publicly recognizing a cop taking notes on a napkin at the back of a club, to miming forbidden words in charades (a funny bit) or using “blah-blah” when police were present, to railing against and finally pleading with judges to hear actual text and decide for themselves. (Frustration is palpable.) Sometimes court becomes fodder for club appearances. At other times, we hear a jail door slam and watch as Bruce crumples to the floor.
Lenny Bruce was convicted of obscenity in 1964 and posthumously pardoned by then Governor George Pataki in 2003. He set the standard for comedians to whose verbal pyrotechnics we’ve become mostly inured.
To condense such a complex life is daunting. Marmo has done a formidable job integrating important aspects of Lenny Bruce’s life and work. My sole caveat about this persuasively written script is that the character’s heroin use is suddenly referred to without showing when/how it began or spiraled before killing him. Still, the piece showcases highly accomplished play writing.
Yiddish terms with which the artist grew up pepper the play as does hip vernacular of the day like man, cats, dig, grooving. These come as trippingly off Marmo’s tongue as Bruce’s Long Island accent. I YouTubed the icon after seeing this production. The actor channels gestures, carriage, and style without self consciously locking himself in to mirroring. On stage i.e. act, timing is beautifully calibrated.
That Bruce’s persona hardly changed in life aids smooth transition, but it’s not axiomatic that an actor who can successfully present personality, ranging from astringent to abrasive, while reacting in real time to his audience, will also be able to move us when plumbing the man. Marmo does just that. Pleasure is empathetic, suffering visceral. His subject achieves a kind of measured dignity, yet also restively presents time as a junkie. Attention to detail resonates.
Director Joe Mantegna clocks Bruce’s physical and aural idiosyncrasies combining them with imaginative use of an almost empty stage to intrigue and hold. Lingering on the lip of the proscenium, as if standing on a cliff or venturing into the audience, replicate in-your-face performance.
Observe the way Bruce handles the microphone and fidgets with his tie. A tragic accident shocks with the use of only two chairs. Prison walls almost manifest. Mantegna and Marmo impeccably create the jazz riff style of Bruce’s delivery. Focus and pacing are splendid.
Matt Richter’s Lighting Design is an integral part of his minimal set as well as dramatization. It seamlessly tells us whether we’re onstage or off as well as contributing to mood.
Sound design by Hope Bello LaRoux creates a multitude of atmospheric backgrounds and invisible people with finesse and skill.
A 15-month run in Los Angeles preceded this New York production which is appropriately in a club (The Cutting Room) rather than a theater. Go.
Production Photos by Doren Sorell Photography
I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce
Written by and Starring Ronnie Marmo
Directed by Joe Mantegna
The Cutting Room
44 East 32nd Street
Through December 30, 2018