Humor, tragedy, sex and social change: Lenny Bruce’s story comes to Basie stage – Asbury Park Press

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Broadway legend Patti LuPone was the ideal audience member for “I’m Not A Comedian .. I’m Lenny Bruce.”

“Patti said, ‘I went home and I looked up all the players. I wanted to know about everybody,’ ” said Ronnie Marmo, who wrote and stars in the play, about the groundbreaking and oft-misunderstood comic, calling it “the best compliment we got.”

Here’s why, say Marmo and director Joe Mantegna, Tony Award winner and star of “Criminal Minds”: You probably know the name Lenny Bruce, whether it’s a vague recollection of his controversial bits or a mention in the songs “La Vie Boheme” from “Rent” or  Bob Dylan’s “Lenny Bruce.”

You may have seen his portrayal recently in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” or decades ago in the film or stage production “Lenny.” You may know he was arrested multiple times on obscenity charges. You may even know he died of a drug overdose.

But do you really know Lenny Bruce?

Free speech groundbreaker

“He is one of the people in the world that helped move the needle forward,” Mantegna said. “He was this comic, (but) the word comic, certainly it doesn’t cover all. And that puts him in a rarefied air. How many comics could you say actually had a social impact on the world in the way he did? And it’s such an interesting story — there’s so much humor in it, so much tragedy in it. It’s all of it, it’s the whole ball of wax.”

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“I’m Not A Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce” has been in development for a quarter-century now, with runs off-Broadway and across the country.

You can catch the show at 8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 8, and Saturday, Oct. 9, at The Vogel at Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank. The show is the first theatrical production to play the new venue, which opened a year ago and has been hosting musical and stand-up acts since.

The show runs approximately 90 minutes and includes strong language, mature themes and nudity.

Like many, Marmo, a Woodbridge native, knew a little about Bruce, but once he was introduced to him through another work and delved into his life, he felt a kinship, which has grown into being a proponent and protector of the comic.

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“Once I did a deep dive, I fell in love with the guy. I just was like, ‘Wow, our lives parallel in so many ways.’ It’s just so crazy how connected I felt to him and to what he was fighting for and so many similarities,” Marmo said.

He developed the show by getting to know those closest to Bruce for the sake of authenticity, including his daughter Kitty, whose seal of approval is paramount to the playwright.

Obscenity arrests

Bruce was no stranger to controversy, with often sexually explicit, political, religious and “vulgar” material that challenged free speech standards and censorship. He was arrested and charged with obscenity multiple times throughout the 1960s, with one Greenwich Village conviction overturned by then-New York Gov. George Pataki in 2003.

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Scores of comics including Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Billy Crystal and Richard Lewis point to him as having paved the way for their work. When he was on trial for obscenity in the Greenwich Village case, Paul Newman, Bob Dylan, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, John Updike, James Baldwin, George Plimpton, Henry Miller, Joseph Heller, Gore Vidal, Woody Allen and dozens of others signed a petition supporting him.

Because of the free speech controversies Bruce found himself at the center of, Marmo says now is an especially important time for the piece.

“I fell in love with Lenny and I felt like this was a story that had to be told, based on free speech. Sadly it’s always relevant, but it just feels really relevant right now.

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“Our world has completely changed in the last 18 months, the pandemic and George Floyd and all the things. I feel like the show’s more powerful now and more important now and I can’t wait to get back to it.”

A homecoming

Marmo is especially excited to perform the show back in his home state,

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“I remember hanging on the streets of Jersey and my neighborhood, he said. “To me this is like the Super Bowl. It’s full circle, it makes me feel so good.”

Another homecoming would be a return to the stage for Mantegna. He made his Broadway debut in “Hair” in 1969 and won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play for David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” in 1984 ahead of a storied career in film and television.

“When I won the Tony Award, all I had done up to that point was theater for 15 years. Afterwards, the press, they said, ‘What was it like?’ I said ‘Well it’s like winning the lottery, but I’ve been buying a lot of tickets.’ Whenever I go back to (the stage), it ignites something in me. If you’ve done it, it never leaves you and it’s always part of you.”

Audiences at The Vogel must show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of door time. Patrons 12 and under must remain masked at all times, and masks are recommended for all.

For tickets and more information, visit and to learn more about the show, visit

Ilana Keller is an award-winning journalist and lifelong New Jersey resident who loves Broadway and really bad puns. She highlights arts advocacy and education, theater fundraisers and more through her column, “Sightlines.” Reach out on Twitter: @ilanakeller;

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