NEW YORK — The ghost of groundbreaking comedian Lenny Bruce hovers impishly over “Buyer Beware,” the play by Michael Weller that drew a national spotlight to Brandeis University in 2017, after a campus production was derailed over complaints of offensive content.
Is it an offensive play? Do you generally like jokes about pedophilia, the Crucifixion, and Jesus’s manhood?
Of course not, me neither. Normally. But I laughed at many of the Lenny Bruce jokes (and Bruce-like jokes) at a recent reading of “Buyer Beware” at a small SoHo theater, and I wasn’t alone. Weller’s script even called us out for laughing. Real laughter is honest, the play says, because it cannot be controlled. It reveals something about us.
For a play that hasn’t been staged, “Buyer Beware” has stirred remarkable controversy, becoming a symbol for the broader debate over the limits of free speech on college campuses.
Weller, an accomplished playwright and a 1982 Oscar nominee for his screenplay for “Ragtime,” began to write the play during a residency at Brandeis in 2016, as he studied the Lenny Bruce archives housed at the school.
The original plan was for Weller, a Brandeis graduate, to premier the play on campus. But faculty postponed a planned production after students complained that the play vilified its black characters and the Black Lives Matter social movement. Admittedly hurt by the response, Weller withdrew the work and announced it would debut someplace else.
Right-wing media seized on the controversy as an example of snowflaky PC campus culture run amok. Free speech advocates found it almost too ironic that a play about the “dangerous” comedy of Lenny Bruce, whose routines famously pressed buttons and stirred outrage, would be called off over uncomfortable content.
I wrote about the Brandeis uproar two years ago, and stayed in touch occasionally with the 76-year-old playwright by e-mail. Newspaper people are generally of the more-speech-is-better-than-less persuasion, and I told Weller I’d like to see his play when it had a performance, for a follow-up story.
It took a while, but at Weller’s invitation late last month I joined the playwright and a roomful of industry insiders representing regional theaters and Broadway and off-Broadway houses for a private reading.
For Weller and director Tony Speciale, the private event was an opportunity to hear some recent edits out loud and to show the developing work to “a small group of people who might be able to help the play move forward,” Speciale said in an interview.
There were no elaborate sets or magical stage lighting; just professional actors in front of a brick wall reading their lines out of binders, before an audience of about 50 people in a small basement theater.
The uncanny thing about “Buyer Beware” is that the fictional plot roughly mirrors what happened to the real play. In the story, a Brandeis student becomes inspired by the Lenny Bruce archives and plans a performance of the material. Students offended by Bruce’s language threaten to protest, and school administrators step in to thwart the show. I had to remind myself the play came first.
“It is a fun irony,” Weller said, with a broad smile. He seems well past what happened to the play on campus. He has been refining the script, “deepening the complexities of the connections between the white and black students.”
There are plans for it to be seen by the public next year, he said.
There is an edgy sense of social danger in “Buyer Beware,” the feeling that we as an audience might hear . . . well, anything, especially when protagonist Ron Avakian, played at the reading by actor Christian Perry, slipped into a solid impression of Lenny Bruce.
For those unfamiliar with Bruce, there may be no comic like him working today. Partly because standards for profanity in public performances are relaxed now. In Bruce’s day, using obscenities on stage could mean jail time, and Bruce was often in trouble with the law. Born in New York in 1925 as Leonard Alfred Schneider, Bruce was famous for stream-of-consciousness rants that provoked laughter and seat-squirming discomfort in equal measure. He was convicted on an obscenity charge after a 1964 performance in New York; his conviction stood until Governor George Pataki posthumously pardoned him in 2003. Bruce died of a drug overdose in 1966, at age 40.
Some Bruce material quoted in the play is still not printable in the Globe, even after 50 years. This joke about religion is one of the tamer ones: Did you ever think that if Christ was crucified 20 years ago, Catholic kids would wear little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses?
The play is not all about race. Weller goes after the business of academia, portraying it as cynical and greedy in its chase for donor money. He goes after the wealthy. (“The rich are different; they’re a pain in the ass.”) He coins the term “trustennial,” for entitled trust fund millennials.
He is particularly tough on people who succumb to peer pressure. “If you care what people think of you,” a character says, channeling the author, “you’re already dead.” The play argues that Lenny Bruce has never been more relevant, and, contrarily, allows its characters to make the case that Bruce’s humor and language are still not acceptable and that he should stay in the archives, to be studied, not revived.
At its essence, Speciale said, the play is about “the simple act of listening, while also showing how difficult it seems to be.”
Early in the play, Ron, a white character, parrots one of Bruce’s old riffs in a rainbow of racial slurs, including the n-word. His black roommate overhears him, and the tension created is what sets the plot in motion. It is uncomfortable to watch. When the roommate later finds the words to hurt Ron back, that’s hard to watch, too.
A few days after the reading, I tracked down New York actress Karen Eilbacher, who read the part of a campus activist, the play’s most passionately outspoken black character.
“I love this script so much,” Eilbacher said. “Race, race, race, race, race — we idolize the word and we never break it down.” That’s what “Buyer Beware does,” she said, it explores the intentions and inner pain of the characters, from a range of perspectives.
“Both sides of the coin are shown in the sun,” she said. “We want to talk about the subject of race. We have a script where that is being presented. Are we talking about it? How are we talking about people’s pain?”
The play “goes beyond the color of skin,” she added. “It goes to, ‘What are you really angry about?’ ”