The last time I reviewed Ronnie Marmo’s one-man show on Lenny Bruce, in October 2019 (then running at the now-closed Royal George Theatre), I was underwhelmed. Marmo’s performance as Bruce was good, but Bruce’s curse-filled material just didn’t have the liberating zing I remembered as a kid listening to his records or watching Bob Fosse’s 1974 biopic Lenny (in which Dustin Hoffman played Bruce). Instead of opening minds, and breaking down walls, Bruce’s jokes now felt akin to the glee-filled nastiness haters and trolls indulge in on the Internet, and in the loonier fringes of Congress.
The current incarnation of the show (still under the direction of Joe Mantegna) feels very different. The show is sharper, feels faster paced, much more animated by the spirit of Bruce’s righteous anger. And it is much, much funnier.
I’m Not a Comedian . . . I’m Lenny Bruce
Through 12/4: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM; also Sun 11/28, 3 PM; no show Thu 11/11 and 11/25, Venus Cabaret Theater at the Mercury, 3745 N. Southport, 773-360-7365, mercurytheaterchicago.com, $69-$79 (portions of proceeds benefit the Lenny Bruce Memorial Foundation).
I don’t know what accounts for the change, but I have some theories. For one, Marmo, who also wrote the show, has clearly been tweaking the show over the past two years, cutting and shaping the material to emphasize Bruce’s bracing iconoclasm but also avoiding bits that might be misinterpreted (such as the one in which Bruce performs a litany of ethnic and racial slurs, including the N-word).
It could also be that the current venue, Venus Cabaret Theater, is a more comfortable performing space than the Royal George’s awkwardly long, narrow backroom cabaret.
All I know is, I laughed a lot more this time around. Bruce, at his best, was a king at getting laughs between the jokes, by playing off the audience in front of him, and Marmo has mastered that.