Lenny Bruce was our Oscar Wilde, a major artist and wit who thought his genius would protect him as he took on the world and its lies and hypocrisy. Like Wilde, he was proved wrong, ending up disgraced, imprisoned and ruined. But the attack on Lenny Bruce—led by a procession of dim-wittedly self-righteous cops, prosecutors and judges in California, New York and Chicago, a city he called “so corrupt it’s thrilling”—turned this brilliant and flawed man, who died of a drug overdose in 1966 at the age of forty, into a free-speech martyr and legend. As attested to by the large and enthusiastic crowd applauding Ronnie Marmo’s bravura performance in this one-man show, that legend remains very much alive.
Veteran film, TV and stage actor Marmo, who also wrote the script, begins on a “Sunset Boulevard” note, narrating Bruce’s nightmarish death scene, naked on a toilet, fatal needle nearby. From there we see the actor enter his character, donning the sixties-style tight suit and skinny tie, with upswept hair and dangling cigarette, becoming, in Bruce’s self-description, “a hip Jewish version of James Dean.” And we see him skillfully adopt Bruce’s speech pattern, a Yiddish-flecked black hipster argot that he wielded with the improvisational skill of the jazz musicians he emulated. Marmo doesn’t have the liquid, luminous eyes that Lenny wielded to such effect on audiences when onstage and on women when off. But to his credit, Marmo captures at least some of Bruce’s charisma and complexity as a performer, his melding of Old World warmth and American beatnik cool, his ability to instantly shift from funny to angry to sad and from sentimental to raucously vulgar. Marmo displays the shark-like bite of Bruce’s humor, which got sharper and more single-minded as his legal persecution worsened. But as we see here, Bruce’s intention was that of every avant-garde artist: to startle his audience out of its somnolence and complacency. In his time, Bruce was categorized as a “sick” comic. To which he would respond: “The world is sick and I’m the doctor.”
Chicago-bred movie star Joe Mantegna directs, whatever that means for a one-hander written by the star and staged on a minimalist set in the Royal George’s intimate cabaret space. Aside from some fidgeting with his tie, Marmo has little in the way of inward-pointing theatrical moments or gestures. It’s essentially a “Lenny’s Greatest Hits” evening, showcasing some of his most famous bits, which still pack a wallop. We experience how Bruce pushed his material way beyond conventional comedy, to the point where viewers had to confront their own discomfort and what it revealed about themselves. Marmo enacts a classic routine that begins with Bruce jauntily greeting viewers with a laundry list of hateful ethnic epithets, silencing and confusing the crowd. But his point wasn’t to abuse his audience; it was to take the sting out of the forbidden words by using and overusing them in a benign context. He closes the sketch memorably, accusingly: “You know what’s a genuinely obscene word? Segregation.”
Other bits, some of them not funny at all, deconstruct verbal taboos that make us feel dirty when we naturally do things that can’t be talked about or that prevent us from acknowledging what we know to be true, making liars of us all. Describing a “Life Magazine” photo of Jackie Kennedy scrambling away from the open car just after her husband has been shot, Lenny made enemies by saying that the picture shows Jackie instinctively “hauling ass” to escape the sniper, rather than, as the “Life” editors would have it, altruistically seeking help for her husband. “The truth is what is, and what should be is a fantasy,” Lenny would say. It’s a lesson we still need to hear.
With languid grace, Marmo delivers a performance that at times goes beyond acting and seems to channel Bruce’s iconoclasm and defiance of authority. As playwright, Marmo does a credible job of weaving in the details of Bruce’s life, which revolved around two women and a girl: his mother Sally Marr, herself a gifted performer, who raised and mentored him; his wife and great love, the one-time stripper Honey Harlow, of whom he said, “We were like a drug to each other”; and his daughter Kitty, whom he adored but could never nurture, and who was only eight years old when he died in a final act of abandonment. Bruce’s other serious relationship was with dope. We don’t learn how the addiction started, but we do see it worsen as the police harassment intensifies and his career spirals downward.
If there’s a flaw in the play, it’s the over-emphasis on the superficial notion of Lenny as a smutty-mouthed proto-shock jock. The program cover features a photo of Marmo with upraised middle finger and the breathless caption, “Obscene—Provocative—Criminal—Controversial.” But this image feeds into the cops’ view of Lenny as the enemy of all that’s good and decent. The point that Lenny Bruce—the man who, as Marmo points out in the program, died not so much of a morphine overdose as a police overdose—was desperate to make is that he was being tried and condemned based not on how he delivered his own material, but on how a vice squad detective attuned only to dirty words remembered and clumsily rendered his act in court. If only he could speak his own words, so Bruce believed, the judge would see that they were not filthy and obscene, but rather artful, liberating, true.
Packaged then as now as the height of brash irreverence, Lenny Bruce didn’t have a cheap or cynical bone in his body. His plea for openness, his hatred of humbug and his urge to make his society worthy of its ostensible freedom were as earnest as any preacher’s vocation. “I’m Not a Comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce” gets at the deep seriousness of Bruce’s jokes and the hilarity of his home truths. Anyone interested in what radical honesty feels like should see this show. (Hugh Iglarsh)
The Royal George Cabaret Theatre, 1641 North Halsted, (312)988-9000, theroyalgeorgetheatre.com, $69-$79. Through December 1.