Ronnie Marmo is the creator and star of “I’m Not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce,” which had a successful pre-pandemic run at the Royal George Theatre here and roared back to town a couple of weeks ago at the Venus Cabaret at the Mercury Theater for what Marmo hopes will be a long stay.
“I fell in love with Chicago,” he says. “It’s gotten under my skin for keeps.”
Marmo had explored more than a few local spaces as possible homes — the Royal George is closed — for his show before settling on the Venus and its 90-some seats. It’s a handsome place, recently refashioned as, what its owners call, “an intimate theatrical performance space where you’ll find something for everyone.” That “something” includes, in addition to Marmo-as-Lenny, other forms of entertainment, from stand-up comics to variety shows, from karaoke nights to the sublime singer/composer Joanie Pallatto, premiering her new CD, “My Original Plan,” at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 5.
“The first time I walked in there I felt a serious Lenny vibe,” Marmo says. “There was a wonderful intimacy, the audience so close.”
And so, he formally opened last week and already has been extended into January. Until the pandemic hit, he had sold out every performance for five months at the Royal George.
“My last show here was on March 15, 2020. And then I was gone,” he said.
Back in Los Angeles, where he has long lived, he staged a fundraising festival with his Theatre 68. He starred in a couple of TV pilots that were filmed in New Jersey this year, including one titled “Un$uited,” a comedy. He flew to Chicago to scout possible homes for his show and he performed the show in late October in Los Angeles and for two sold-out 400-seat houses at a theater in New Jersey.
“And all the while, all the while I have been doing this show, I have been tweaking it,” he says.
He knows all there is to know about Lenny Bruce and is keenly aware of how crucial Chicago was to the comic’s career. It was Playboy’s Hugh Hefner who, having seen Bruce’s act in San Francisco, arranged for the comic to perform at our Cloister Inn in 1958. From here, Bruce soared to stardom: big-time club engagements; comedy albums and movie roles; the first in a series of drug busts (in Los Angeles in 1959); a handful of national television appearances; the first in a series of arrests for obscenity that same year (the most notorious one took place in Chicago the following year); a six-month trial in New York City in 1964 that resulted in his being found guilty of obscenity; a virtual blacklist that kept him off U.S. stages; an autobiography, “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People”; increasing drug use and unstable behavior; and, finally, a deadly overdose in his California home.
“I Am Not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce” is directed by Joe Mantegna, a child of Cicero and Chicago theater legend before going on to Broadway (winning Tony award in David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross”), movie and television stardom.
Mantegna told me, “I’m delighted with the success of the show, but not overly surprised. I’ve always felt Chicago is a great theater town and will support that community, be it on large downtown stages or the many off-Loop venues that I was so happy to be a part of for many years.”
Marmo is a Brooklyn-born. He had acted in dozens of films and TV, directed dozens more. He has founded his own theater company and he has been tightly tied to Bruce since 2010, when he starred in a play called “Lenny Bruce is Back (And Boy is He Pissed).”
That became this current show that played successfully in Los Angeles and New York before coming to Chicago in the fall of 2019, where my Tribune colleague Chris Jones wrote in his review “even the most devoted Bruce fan will leave impressed with Marmo … Expressive but physically taut, Marmo has a physical resemblance to Bruce, although Marmo actually looks more like the actor Sean Penn, which is more relevant here than you might first think … For me, Marmo’s great achievement — no doubt forged with Mantegna’s help — is his ability to replicate not just Bruce’s essential vulnerability, a sweet neediness that made him seek constant relief, but his furious mind, forever fated to rail about the lack of intellectual honesty in America.”
For this latest run, recent events have thrust Bruce back into public consciousness. His name peppered the obituaries and appreciations of his former friend and contemporary comic Mort Sahl, who died at 94 on Oct. 26. His name was also mentioned amid the loud controversy that erupted over Dave Chappelle’s comedy special “The Closer,” that recently premiered on Netflix.
One of Bruce’s most famous routines, which Marmo performed on stage in his first Chicago stay, focused on a racial slur, a verbal riff intended to rob the word of its painful power. Hearing Bruce’s routine for the first time in 1962, Black comic Dick Gregory reportedly said, “This man is the eighth wonder of the world.”
That has always been a touchy routine and, says Marmo, “I used to get uneasy every time I would do it, but I had a long talk about it with Christian Gregory (Dick Gregory’s son) and that, talking about the bit and about Lenny as truth teller, has made me less anxious.”
But the world has changed, and that routine is no longer part of the show.
“There were a lot of conversations about that with Joe and Kitty (Kitty Bruce, Lenny’s daughter) and a lot of others,” he says. “I can’t be tone deaf to the world we are living in, and it didn’t seem fair that a two minute-long routine might give people a skewed view of what Lenny really was all about.”
He has reworked the show in other ways too and some critics have found the revisions welcome. Writing in the Chicago Reader, Jack Helbig wrote that he had been “underwhelmed” by the original production but that this new version “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 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.”
After each Venus show, Marmo goes to the lobby where he shakes hands, signs autographs and, most touchingly for him, hears from people who saw Lenny Bruce in person on stage, long ago.
“I’m Not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce” plays Thursdays through Saturdays at the at the Venus Cabaret, 3745 N. Southport Ave.; audience members must provide proof of vaccination, or a negative COVID-19 PCR test from the last 72 hours, or a negative antigen test from the last 6 hours. Masks are required in the theater. Tickets and more information at www.mercurytheaterchicago.com