Any notion that Ronnie Marmo‘s portrayal of the life of Lenny Bruce would be sugar-coated is dispelled when he opens his show — following a burlesque number — naked on a toilet, re-enacting Bruce’s death from a drug overdose.
“I wanted to do the most honest, gut-wrenching truth, gritty performance I could and tell the whole story,” Marmo, a veteran stage, television and screen actor and writer, said.
He did so by developing “I’m Not A Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce,” now playing at The Box, 189 Chrystie St. in Manhattan, through interviews with some of the groundbreaking comedian’s closest friends, his own words and performances, and maybe most importantly, with the help and blessing of Bruce’s daughter, Kitty.
“I’m Not A Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce” just announced an extension through June 1, and likely beyond.
Marmo, who wrote and stars in the show, says more than third of the piece is unique to his performance, developed through his work and research. He worked alongside Kitty Bruce for many years, calling hers’ “quite honestly the only review that really matters. How do you play someone’s dad? … As an actor, you can tell how much I love Lenny Bruce, even when I tell the dirty stuff. I love him. And I think she understood that I love him second-most on the planet after her.”
Marmo says he fell in love with Bruce’s story after being introduced to it through an earlier play written by Sam Bobrick and Julie Stein, and its parallels to his own life, and felt compelled to form a full, accurate telling.
“The natural tendency for people when they play him (is to) play this angry, pissed off guy and I wanted you to meet the man. I just listened to everything I could get my hands on. I interviewed some of his best friends who were still with us and I just let my instinct lead me to the truth. Eventually I had to take all the information I had and then throw it away and try to be authentic. I don’t do an imitation of him, I just kind of open myself up and let him come through.”
Bruce, a standup comedian and social satirist, was famously arrested and jailed for obscenity, taking his case and issues of free speech all the way to the Supreme Court. He died of a drug overdose in 1966.
“I felt like Lenny was more timely today than ever for obvious reasons, all the things we’re still fighting for in this country,” Marmo said. “(The truth is) always under attack. He was the exact opposite. He was a truth-teller. And he’s the exact opposite of what we currently have in our White House right now. So I think I feel like his voice is more relevant today. … And so I think we need to be lending voice to kind of right the ship in a lot of ways but also just his personal demons like with addiction, and you know sadly that’s always topical.”
“And I had such a personal connection with him that I thought ‘how can I not do it?’ It felt obvious and as a writer and actor, these don’t come around this often. I couldn’t walk away from it.”
Marmo says telling the addiction aspect of Bruce’s story was important to him, as is benefiting the Lenny Bruce Memorial Foundation through his performance. The foundation provides financial assistance to help people without insurance coverage access rehabilitation services.
In addition, “the free speech was important to me. And what that looks like is just fighting for your right to be a free thinker and move forward in new creative ways,” he said.
“I’m Not A Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce” is directed by award-winning actor, director and producer Joe Mantegna (“Criminal Minds”).
Highlights from “The Prom” on Broadway, starrring Brooks Ashmanskas, Beth Leavel, Christopher Sieber, Caitlin Kinnunen, Isabelle McCalla and Angie Schworer Asbury Park Press
“It’s like if a priest got to serve Mass with the pope,” Marmo said of Mantegna’s direction and collaboration. “I mean it’s like how do you get to do that with someone you just admire so much? It’s inspiring. And he’s such a brilliant mind and such a talented man. He’s so unassuming that he led me with such a gentle hand in this process that it was effortless.”
Marmo now lives on the West Coast, but grew up in Central Jersey. His first show was at Edison Valley Playhouse.
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“I’m a Woodbridge boy at heart. I came from Brooklyn to Woodbridge when I was six and grew up in Woodbridge. And it’s still my home in many ways. I take the train from the city all the time to watch football with my friends at Miller’s (Ale House). I left eventually because I knew that I would never have pursued what I pursued if I stayed there, because you know when you grow up in your neighborhood it’s easy for a week to turn into a month and then suddenly you’re there forever. So I had to get out. But I go back all the time and I’m very proud to be from there.”
“I’m Not A Comedian .. I’m Lenny Bruce” is presented by Theatre 68 in association with Dennis Paladino and Kitty Bruce, and features burlesque artist Pearls Daily, who was just named Miss Coney Island 2019.
Performances are 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, as well as 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 24, with no performances on Saturday, April 27. Tickets are $59 and up, with a one-item food or beverage minimum.
For more information, or to purchase tickets, age 21 and up, visit LennyBruceOnStage.com. The show runs approximately 90 minutes and includes mature themes, strong language and nudity.
For more information on Marmo’s work, visit ronniemarmo.com.
For more information on the Lenny Bruce Memorial Foundation, visit lennybruce.org.
Ilana Keller: Twitter: @ilanakeller; 732-643-4260; email@example.com
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