A little over a decade ago, actor Ronnie Marmo first got to really know the life story of Lenny Bruce when a friend, comedian Charlie Brill, asked if he was interested in portraying the legendary comedian in the one-man show “Lenny Bruce is Back and Boy is He Pissed.”
Marmo grew up on the comedy of Bruce acolytes such as George Carlin and Richard Pryor and admits at the time he only knew the basic talking points about Bruce but nothing more. So the idea of stepping into his persona took some convincing.
“Charlie said I reminded him of Lenny but it took him a couple of years to talk me into doing the show,” Marmo recalls. “Eventually, I did it and fell in love with this guy.”
The one hitch in the show was that it didn’t have the rights to Bruce’s material. “It was more like storytelling as opposed to living this guy’s incredible, tragic, beautiful life,” Marmo says. “So I decided to write my own play and set off on a five year journey of discovery.”
After successful runs in Los Angeles and New York, Marmo brings his show “I’m Not a Comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce” to the Royal George Theatre. Marmo once again portrays Bruce in the 90-minute solo piece directed by Chicago native Joe Mantegna and produced in partnership with Bruce’s daughter Kitty Bruce.
Marmo is out to correct the fact that “whole generations don’t know who Lenny was. They think he’s just a character on “Mrs. Maisel,” he says, referencing the hit Amazon series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” where Bruce serves as a mentor to the main character.
Marmo’s take on Bruce’s story reaches from his childhood as the son of an entertainer, through his various legal troubles over the perceived indecency of his act, to his death in 1966 from an overdose at age 40. He died in the midst of an appeal on an obscenity conviction.
“Ronnie has done as much to channel himself into the role of Lenny than I’ve ever seen an actor do with a role based on an actual person,” Mantegna noted via email. “The amount of research he did to both write and perform this piece is astounding.”
Marmo knew he wanted to include some of Bruce’s controversial standup routines in the show. So his first step was to gain the confidence of Kitty Bruce who owned the rights to her father’s work. It took nearly a decade and many conversations.
“I think it took so long because people have taken advantage of her father’s name not always with the best intentions,” Marmo says. “This was all she knew. Over time, we became good friends.”
Mantegna, who in the mid-‘70s understudied the lead in a Chicago production of Julian Barry’s “Lenny” at 11th Street Theatre, feels Marmo brings everything possible to the role.
“The fact that Kitty has so embraced Ronnie’s portrayal of her dad is a strong verification of how much Ronnie has succeeded in capturing Lenny’s life,” Mantegna says.
Bruce pushed the boundaries of everything in his standup routines. Included in “I’m Not a Comedian” are some of Bruce’s more controversial standup routines including the N-word bit, which according to Marmo, is Bruce’s attempt to “take the power out of the word.”
Only a few people have been offended by the routine and, Marmo notes that it has sparked many more interesting post-show conversations.
“He hated hypocrisy and he loved holding a mirror up to society and most people didn’t like that,” he says. “They wanted things to continue on as they knew it and that was not Lenny Bruce.”
Marmo, the artistic director of the Los Angeles and New York chapters of Theatre 68, admits that disappearing into the persona of Lenny Bruce night after night does take a toll.
“It’s like sitting in therapy for 90 minutes,” he says, adding, “It’s alive, it’s like I’m living this performance each night. But even after so many performances, I feel as if I’m just getting started because every night I hear something different, I feel something different. It’s funny, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s frustrating.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.