“I’m Not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce” — ★ ★ ★
Several years ago, Comedy Central and Rolling Stone published lists of the all-time best stand-up comedians. Lenny Bruce placed third on both, behind Richard Pryor and George Carlin.
Certainly Pryor and Carlin loom large. But it was Bruce — the trailblazing comic and social critic — who paved their way and inspired generations of funny men and women. The latest acknowledgment of the debt stand-up owes Bruce is writer/director Ronnie Marmo’s solo show “I’m Not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce,” running through Dec. 1 at the Royal George Theatre.
Directed by Chicago favorite son Joe Mantegna, “I’m Not a Comedian” is an ardent homage to the self-described “surgeon with a scalpel for false values,” who overdosed in 1966 at age 40. And while his humor is most certainly of its era, the truths he spoke about the injustice he perceived and the peril to democracy that comes from trying to silence dissent resonate in every decade.
Bruce’s death in the bathroom of his California home commences a 90-minute bio-drama, which incorporates several of the comedian’s celebrated routines. They’re meticulously re-created by Marmo, who possesses an urban hipster suavity. His seemingly off-the-cuff delivery makes it feel like you’re hearing these bits for the first time.
The show references the women in Bruce’s life: his mother, dancer/actress/comic Sally Marr (credited with discovering Tommy Chong, Cheech Marin and Sam Kinison); ex-wife Honey, a onetime stripper; and their daughter, Kitty. But “I’m Not a Comedian” centers mostly on Bruce and his determination to use comedy to expose hypocrisy, champion free speech and excise the venom from those ugly, hurtful slurs that still haven’t lost their sting (evidenced by the sharp intake of breath that marked audience members’ response on opening night).
Marmo wears the character of Lenny Bruce like a custom-made suit. But what is most striking about his impassioned, kinetic performance is its authenticity. His Bruce is a deeply flawed man: insecure, vulnerable, desperate and unfailingly clever who had the temerity to speak truth to power but lacked the ability to overcome his addiction.
That is where “I’m Not a Comedian” falls short. The script’s references to Bruce’s drug use aren’t exactly subtle. In fact, they’re more like neon signs. The comedian describes getting “hooked” on performing, which he compares to “a flash I’ve heard morphine addicts describe.” He compares shooting heroin to “kissing God” and admits drugs destroyed his marriage. But while the play offers glimpses of the drugs’ effects, it doesn’t delve into the reasons Bruce sought refuge there.
Still, Marmo delivers a convincing portrait of a complicated man who “wanted to be the hip, Jew version of James Dean.” He turned out to be much more.
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Location: Royal George Cabaret Theatre, 1641 Halsted St., Chicago. (312) 988-9000 or lennybruceonstage.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; through Dec. 1
Running time: About 90 minutes, no intermission
Parking: $15 valet; paid lots; limited street parking
Rating: For adults; includes strong language, racial slurs, brief nudity