LOS ANGELES — In what’s the most ironic venue twist I’ve stumbled across in my reviewing misadventures, the one-man bioplay about the iconoclastic comic whose routines (in)famously included a bit called “Religion Incorporated” is actually being presented inside of an L.A. church. Ronnie Marmo plays the title role in I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce, which is actually being staged in the intimate theater located in St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, where the Loft Ensemble theater company is based in the NoHo Arts District.
Marmo also wrote this Theatre 68 guest production at Loft Ensemble, directed by actor Joe Mantegna, whose stage and screen credits include David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (for which Mantegna won the Tony Award), CBS’ Criminal Minds series, and The Godfather III.
The fact that a production about First Amendment icon Lenny Bruce is emerging now is tantalizing to reflect upon in terms of America’s Zeitgeist. Freedom of speech, an essential element of democracy, is much in the headlines nowadays, from college campuses to school board meetings censoring “Critical Race Theory” to a loser lunatic ex-prez who denounced the free press as “fake news” and “enemies of the people” and tried to suppress publication of books by John Bolton, Mary Trump and others. (See Lenny on media misinformation.)
Do those espousing “hate speech,” Q-Anon, anti-masking, anti-vaxxing, ad nauseam, have constitutional guarantees to express their screeds and diatribes, no matter how dubious their world views may be? Should Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., be open to all perspectives (and invectives) and held responsible for the rantings and ravings they enable by providing platforms for them to shriek and lie from? Must we haul TikTok before the dock?
As a standup comic with a philosophical slant, Lenny was a pre-Social Media forerunner of the free speech cause. During the 1950s and ’60s, he was (in)famous for being “foulmouthed,” for using verboten language onstage, which literally caused him to get busted and forced him to contend with wearying court cases that tried his soul and presumably pushed him to seek surcease, release and relief in narcotics.
More importantly, Lenny used his comic perch to speak out on issues of the day, such as integration and religion, in his caustic crusade to broaden the horizons of public discourse in an America emerging from the straitjacket of the Hollywood Blacklist and McCarthyism. (It’s noteworthy that Mantegna portrayed another First Amendment trendsetter, Dalton Trumbo, in Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted, a play written 2003 by the screenwriter’s son, Chris Trumbo, that was mounted off-Broadway and in L.A.)
Within the parameters of a one-man show and on a spare set, I’m Not a Comedian… admirably succeeds in dramatizing Lenny’s life and career, his rise and fall, Bruce’s professional and personal sides. We follow little Lenny from his boyhood in Brooklyn, primarily raised by his solo mom, Sally Marr, who was herself in show biz. Lenny embarks on his comedy career, weds stripper Honey Harlow and they have a daughter named Kitty (who later moved with her mom to Hawaii).
With his vocab-expanding “obscenities” and social consciousness, Lenny’s odd odyssey inevitably leads to confrontations with authorities. Undercover cops take more notes than studio suits during his nightclub performances, then proceed to bust Bruce, such as at Greenwich Village’s Café Au Go Go in 1964. These multiple arrests resulted in Bruce’s aforementioned courtroom confrontations, as well as his being banned from entry into the UK. Lenny’s parallel descent into the chimeric palliative of substance abuse is also effectively dramatized, leading to his tragic death at only 40 (while out on appeal after being sentenced to four months in the workhouse!) in 1966 in the Hollywood Hills, exactly 8.2 miles away from where Marmo reenacts Lenny’s sojourn.
I was an admirer of Lenny Bruce in the early Seventies, read the autobiographical How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, saw Cliff Gorman on Broadway in his Tony Award-winning whirl in Lenny and then Bob Fosse’s 1974 big screen adaptation of Lenny starring Dustin Hoffman. Marmo—a veteran actor who appeared with Joe Mantegna on a Criminal Minds episode—is convincing as Bruce, capturing the comic’s mannerisms, pattern of patter, and most important, Lenny’s tortured soul, lashing out with tongue-lashings against American hypocrisy and the restrictions on free expression in the so-called “Land of the Free.” The writer/actor skillfully interweaves lines from Lenny’s actual bits, such as the entertainer accused of vulgarity citing the words that offend him, like “segregation.”
On the Great White Way, Lenny’s stagecraft featured Cliff Gorman hilariously flying across the stage on a gigantic condom! The more modest I’m Not a Comedian… essentially has one prop onstage (which I won’t reveal to you) that sets the scene and is effectively, evocatively deployed through flashbacks to flow into how Lenny’s life and talent were, shall we say, flushed away. (Ironically, this one-act play is performed without a toilet break.) Marmo’s play will likely offend bluenoses and is not for children, as it includes liberal doses of off-color language, some nudity, references to illegal drugs plus a hair-raising, well acted vignette depicting a grim car crash.
In addition to Lenny’s tragic substance abuse, he arguably had another major flaw that overtook the embattled comic’s performances as his First Amendment court cases consumed his life, even though his defense team included the noted attorney Martin Garbus. This fault is not only alluded to in the title of Marmo’s drama, but in its dialogue, when fans complain that Lenny’s not being funny. People paid to be entertained, but toward the end, beset by his legal woes, his mind presumably wracked by drugs, and above all, obsessed with his quixotic crusade against America’s puritanical values and stifling of free expression, Lenny seems to have lost his sense of humor (but not to say his keen appreciation of irony). Bruce tried to use nightclubs as a courtroom to try his case, even as he endeavored to turn the courtroom into a venue to perform his act, as Marmo movingly reenacts.
In the process, Lenny might have remained enlightening but was arguably increasingly unentertaining (although Marmo is always both). Like Jon Stewart, Bruce largely stopped being funny, and for audiences seeking to laugh, if you’re “Not a Comedian,” you should rebrand yourself as, say, a standup philosopher—or be prepared to give ticket buyers their money back. For the record, Marmo’s play is indeed funny and mixes tragedy and comedy, just as Bruce’s life did.
What is Lenny’s legacy? As a free speech martyr, he arguably expanded the boundaries of America’s public discourse. But if so, one could say this also includes the coarsening of everyday life, with despicable politicians such as Trump lowering the level of oinking in the much ballyhooed marketplace of ideas. Commercials have sunk to new lows unimaginable in Bruce’s day in terms of publicly (and loudly!) braying about intimate bodily functions, bombarding viewers with unwanted, unsolicited, obnoxious, odious ads they are often coerced into paying for on cable TV outlets they already have paid subscriptions to. What would Bruce have to say about that? And imagine the field day he’d have skewering scum of the earth like Trump who impersonate hominids!
On the other hand, at his best, acting as a comic catalyst, the freethinking Lenny opened up America, to relax its puritanism, bigotry and racism, to broaden our horizons of freedom of expression in our social discourse. Nowhere is this more true than in the rarefied realm of comedy. Richard Pryor expressed the sentiment of many comics when he proclaimed: “Lenny changed my life.” Speaking of our Zeitgeist, it may be no accident that this bioplay has appeared at the same time as Bruce acolyte Pryor’s collected works are being released as a comprehensive DVD.
Even if it is true that Lenny’s irreverence broke down the barriers to bad taste—in doing so, thus opening the floodgates to despicable, nasty tweets and squealing by Trumpsters and revolting television advertising—I still prefer to live in an open society with less overt censorship. Looked at that way, this one-act play puts the “lofty” into the Loft Ensemble. As I’m Not a Comedian… proves: Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce continues to talk dirty and influence people.
Theatre 68 is presenting I’m Not a Comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce at 8:00 p.m. on Thurs., Fri., and Sat., and at 7:00 p.m. on Sun. through October 2, at the Loft Ensemble, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood 91602. On Oct. 8 and 9 it is being performed at The Vogel at Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, N.J., tickets available here or here.
This is a short run, so lovers of freedom of speech and more adventurous theatergoers should put on their track shoes and run to NoHo—or Red Bank—to catch it. Hopefully, the production will find its way onto film. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Lenny Bruce Memorial Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit charity, which supports those who have no insurance or enough money to get treatment for drug and alcohol addiction.