Where: The Royal George
Cabaret Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St.
When: through Dec. 1
By ANNE SPISELMAN
More sad than funny, the aptly titled “I’m Not A Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce” begins with the ending, as if to make the point.
The first thing we see in this one-man show, written by and starring Ronnie Marmo, is the dead Bruce, naked and propped up on a toilet with a needle sticking in his arm, on Aug. 3, 1966, the day he overdosed in his Hollywood home. The 90-minute play directed by Joe Mantegna, who knows a thing or two about the shock value of language from his work with David Mamet, comes around again to this finale with an ironic twist and a tribute to Bruce’s influence on subsequent comics, but before that we get a look at his life and art.
Marmo alternates between biographical narrative and excerpts from Bruce’s act, signaled when he takes to his mike stand in a characteristic pose. Drawing on the comic’s own words and autobiography, “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People,” news accounts, and legal transcripts, he recounts—once he gets up from the toilet and gets dressed in a black suit, white shirt, and skinny black tie—his first experience on stage thanks to his mother Sally Marr (herself, a comedian), how he changed his name from Leonard Alfred Schneider, and the development of his increasingly acerbic satirical style.
Unwavering in his commitment to free speech and pushing its boundaries, he tackled subjects considered off limits then and still causing controversy today, among them religion, racism, immigration, sex, homophobia, censorship, and corruption of all kinds. As his fame grew, he was hounded by the authorities and repeatedly arrested for obscenity, taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court.
The excerpts from Bruce’s act, most of them resembling brief jazz riffs, illustrate his savvy attacks on societal hypocrisy. But they also can be double-edged swords. One of the longest, an infamous monologue about the benefits of using racial slurs to strip them of their power, still is disconcerting—though it’s not at all humorous—but the very people who would have supported him then today might accuse him of inappropriate cultural appropriation.
Marmo, who convincingly throws himself into the performance, shows the audience a Bruce who isn’t afraid to address his own failures—at least in part. A big section of the story deals with his love affair with and marriage to stripper Honey Harlow and how it ultimately fell apart, though she continued to love him. He’s also guilty and remorseful about not being a good father to his daughter, Kitty, who by the way is one of the show’s producers.
Bruce’s alcohol and drug abuse aren’t ignored, but the details remain murky. In one bit, he shoots up heroin for the first time and says (as if addressing his mother) that he went about it, as he did everything else, 110 percent. It’s also not really clear whether his drug use exacerbated his trouble with the law or resulted from it.
In fact, the biggest problem with “I’m Not A Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce” is that it provides very little, if any, real insight into Bruce’s behavior. We get a lot of “what” happened but none of the “why.” The connections between bits can be tenuous at best, so the show often jumps disjointedly from one subject to the next with not enough of a dramatic arc to carry through to the conclusion.
It’s also too long and becomes repetitive. Like an embarrassing comic metaphorically “dying” on stage (ironically), Marmo’s Bruce wears out his welcome. This is too bad because the bedeviled man, however self-destructive, had a lot to say that’s still relevant.