Ronnie Marmo is giving an unabashedly ballsy performance at the Cutting Room. He literally begins his new solo show, I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce, bare naked on the commode. This is how Bruce actually died in 1966, and the porcelain monument of his demise remains onstage throughout as the one major element of Matt Richter’s set: an eternal throne for the great king of comedy. As far as visuals go, it’s about as on-the-nose as the rest of this heartfelt, provocative, yet disappointingly conventional tribute.
Conventional is one adjective never ascribed to Lenny Bruce during his brief yet groundbreaking career: A captain of the comedy vanguard in Greenwich Village, Bruce used his sets to philosophize about religion, race, sex, and drugs — often with words and phrases you weren’t allowed to say onstage. This frequently landed him on the wrong side of the law: Police officers would attend his shows, take note of what he was saying, and arrest him for obscenity. When he died, he was appealing a four-month sentence on Rikers Island. This was, of course, during the two decades following World War II, when Americans reverted to strict prudery concerning language and sex, all while crouching in fear of enemies foreign and domestic — nothing like today, right?
Bruce was unquestionably a boundary-pusher, which is why it is somewhat disappointing that Marmo and director Joe Mantegna lean on many of the same tropes found in nearly every fringe festival solo show: the acting-out of narration, the self-pitying introspection, the operatic appeal to God. These hoary bricks are used to construct a fairly standard biography that takes us from Bruce’s first gig to his fatal overdose. Scenes are dedicated to his turbulent personal life, including his open marriage with former stripper Honey Harlow and a near-fatal car accident. Bruce also spends several minutes confessing his shortcomings as a father to his daughter Kitty (who is one of the show’s producers). Marmo performs these monologues with committed sincerity, but it’s hard not to feel like we’ve seen this show before.
Any real tribute to Bruce should recreate the sense of dangerous transgression that came with seeing him perform, and it is telling that the most electric moments of the show are when Marmo cribs directly from Bruce’s act. Lines like, “Even if you’re Catholic, if you live in New York, you’re Jewish,” still garner laughs, as does the observation that if Jesus had been killed in the 20th century, Catholic schoolchildren would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks. With its barrage of ethnic slurs, sacrilege, and sexually charged language, Bruce’s act still shocks. We get the feeling that if he were performing today, Ronan Farrow and James Dobson would be taking notes in the back right next to the fuzz.
It helps that Marmo is a talented mimic. His arms endlessly fold and unfold, with expressive hands punctuating his trenchant observations. He hits Bruce’s distinctive lilt slightly harder than the actual man, much like a drag queen doing her best Judy impression: It’s not an exact replica of the man that was, but a distillation of his essence. In that respect, Marmo makes it very easy to suspend our disbelief and imagine that we’re actually watching Bruce resurrected.
Mantegna’s uneven production makes it a bit harder. Costume designer Lauren Winnenberg gets Bruce’s signature plain black suit right, and sound designer Hope Bello LaRoux conjures his comedy club world with melancholic jazz underscoring. LaRoux is less successful with some of the more utilitarian audio: Prerecorded cues of hecklers and police sirens come off as cheesy and tinny. Set designer Richter also did the lights, which impressively manage to give the script, with all its dimension shifts, a coherent structure: A tight spot signifies when Bruce is performing his act, while soothing magenta and blue LEDs let us know that he’s rapping with the audience in the Cutting Room, a venue that marvelously evokes the smoke-filled stand-up clubs of yesteryear.
Despite its flaws, I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce reminds us of one of America’s great champions of free speech. “Nothing in life is free,” he ominously warns just as things are about to go downhill; “everything has a price.” Marmo heartbreakingly shows us the price Lenny Bruce paid so that the rest of us could enjoy the relatively unfettered interpretation of the First Amendment that prevails today. He also makes us wonder who is willing to pay that price again.