Posted on 27 June 2017.
By Cynthia Citron
NORTH HOLLYWOOD, California — Before George Carlin. Before Richard Pryor. Before EVERYONE who followed, there was Lenny Bruce.
Ostensibly having died of a drug overdose in 1966, Bruce is apparently still alive and unwell at Theatre 68 in North Hollywood. His essence and his memories are currently residing in the body of consummate actor Ronnie Marmo, who begins his performance by insulting the ethnicities of everyone in the audience. As Bruce, he contends that if the pejorative terms for each group were repeated over and over they would revert to being just words rather than abusive epithets.
The zeal with which he presents this concept is magnified by the fact that he looks so much like the man he is portraying. And, as Bruce, his fervor intensifies as he faces the mounting disapproval of the public.
Marmo’s portrayal is mesmerizing as he demonstrates the hysteria and frustration that Bruce endured as he was hounded by the police and judges and suffered the trauma of being perpetually misunderstood.
At the same time, however, Bruce was earning recognition and plaudits from those people who understood his controversial, obscene, and often hilarious rantings on race relations, gender issues, politics, religion, moral philosophy, Jewishness, the law, drugs, and sex. And he defended his words all the way to the Supreme Court as he argued for his constitutional right to freedom of speech.
Marmo’s first venture into the life of Lenny Bruce came in 2010 in a one-man show written by Sam Bobrick and Julie Stein that ran for six months. A few years later, he portrayed Lenny again in a show called Lenny’s Back…and boy is he pissed, which also had a six-month run. The current incarnation, a brand new edition of the story, written by Marmo and Jason M.Burns, is titled I Am Not A Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce. Marmo is especially gratified by the fact that Kitty Bruce, Lenny’s daughter, approved of the script and his performance.
This production is directed by award-winning film, theater, and television actor Joe Mantegna and produced by The 68 Cent Crew Theatre Company. Marmo is the co-founder and artistic director of the company, which added a second colony in New York in 2011.
For a man in his mid-40s Marmo has a most impressive record of accomplishments. He has starred in more than 50 films and television shows and more than 30 plays. He has directed more than 50 stage productions and produced 100 in Los Angeles and New York. He also recently portrayed Lenny Bruce in an audiobook of Bruce’s autobiography titled “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People.”
The current show covers Bruce’s life from the time when as a young man he aspired to be “the hip Jewish version of James Dean.” As he grew older he became a prime womanizer and drug addict, but he seemed on the verge of settling down when he met and fell in love with a stripper named Honey. But after they had produced Kitty, their only child, their six-year marriage fell apart, presumably due to his return to womanizing and “free love.” As he reported to a friend, “I got rid of her…she left me.”
Lonely and ever more into narcotics, he persisted in trying to explain his views to the judges who continually persecuted him. In one poignant scene he pleads with the judge to “just let me show you my act” and “please don’t take away my words” before he ends with, “Your Honor, I so badly want your respect.”
He was just 40 when he died, never living to see the iconic figure he became and the powerful influence he had on so many successful comedians of the next generation.
But don’t tell Lenny you’re coming. He thinks that phrase is dirty.
Citron is a freelance writer specializing in coverage of the arts. She may be contacted via [email protected]