Ronnie Marmo speaks in long sentences broken into quick staccato phrases. His vocal style is reminiscent of groundbreaking Jewish comedian Lenny Bruce.
It makes sense. Marmo, who lives in Los Angeles but calls himself a “Jersey guy,” has portrayed Bruce for more than 15 years.
The actor first starred as the comedian in the play “Lenny Bruce is Back and Boy is He P!$$ed.” While researching Bruce for the role, he fell in love with the comedian’s message.
“I wanted to do his material but, in that show, we didn’t do the bits, we just talked about them,” Marmo recalled.
After securing the rights to Bruce’s material, Marmo penned “I’m Not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce.” The one-man bioplay will be staged in Pittsburgh on Oct. 21-22 at the Byham Theater.
Marmo said that when he originally wrote the show, he never dreamed such a large portion of his career would be tied to Bruce.
“People ask me, how can you do a 90-minute monologue 394 times for an audience, and I say … that I identify with him so much and it’s such an exploration every night, I don’t get bored or get into a by rote rhythm,” Marmo said.
The importance of staying present and not simply reciting lines is at the heart of portraying a character like Bruce who rose to fame in the late 1940s and early 1950s and is seen as a contemporary of both the Beat Generation writers and bebop jazz musicians.
“He considered himself a jazz musician with a microphone,” Marmo said. “He said, ‘I’m like Charlie Parker. I grab the microphone and I blow, blow, blow.’”
When he goes on stage, Marmo works to remain engaged, trying to bring Bruce to life — and true to the comedian’s ethos, there are a few places in the script he left open to improvise and riff.
“He was a wordsmith, so it’s about following the next word, trusting my instincts, that I’ve embodied Lenny and just trust in the rhythm,” Marmo said.
If Bruce is remembered for anything besides his seminal comedy, it’s his use of words and First Amendment battles. The comedian had a long string of arrests for obscenity beginning in 1961. He was found guilty in 1964 and died in 1966 before his appeal. While viewed as a forerunner to George Carlin and Richard Pryor, Bruce spent the last few years of his life railing against the judicial system in routines that sometimes veered into him simply reading court transcripts and commenting from the stage.
“His quote,” Marmo said recalling Bruce’s First Amendment struggles, “was, ‘There aren’t dirty words, just dirty minds.’”
If the actor’s portrayal of Bruce seems prescient in these politically turbulent times, he said it’s more coincidental.
“I know I look really smart,” Marmo said. “It looks very timely because of the First Amendment and everything, but the truth is that it just kind of came together. It was a perfect storm.”
One of the elements that just “came together” was finding the right director for the play — veteran actor Joe Mantegna. Marmo said that almost eight years ago he told Mantegna that he was raising money and working on the script for “I’m Not a Comedian …” When the play was completed, Marmo read it to Mantegna who said he wanted to direct it.
“This guy is amazing,” Marmo said. “Directors usually go to the rehearsals, come for opening weekend, maybe come back the second weekend and give a note. He’s seen the show, I’m not exaggerating, over 100 times. He just keeps coming back. It’s amazing.”
Mantegna and Marmo have known one another for nearly two decades, the actor said. Mantegna even became ordained so he could officiate at Marmo’s wedding.
The actor said the death of his mother at 53 motivated him to try out for the stage. He recalled that she often told him he should give acting a try, although he was reluctant. When she died, it forced him to reexamine his goals.
“I was like, ‘What am I doing? I really want to do that,’” Marmo said. “I reached out to a friend who knew about an audition locally in New Jersey. I tried out, got the part and never looked back.”
If Marmo, who isn’t Jewish, is surprised by his success, he doesn’t let on. Nor does he take it for granted. If he’s been taken aback by one aspect of his career though, it’s the audience that has shown up for “I’m Not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce.”
“I thought my entire audience for the play would be the Jewish community who were old enough to have seen him,” Marmo said. “So, I made sure to put all the crowd-pleasing stuff in there, and then, it turns out the ‘Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ opened the door for every generation,” he said.
Marmo is excited to bring his one-man play to Pittsburgh — and not just for the opportunity to perform.
“I’m the biggest Steelers fan,” he said. “When I was 6 years old my dad brought me home pajamas with the black and gold, and then I started to watch the Steelers in the ‘70s — Mean Joe Greene and all those guys. I’ve been obsessed with the Steelers.”
In fact, Marmo is such a fan he’s coming to the city several days before his show.
“I’m coming eight days early because the weekend I’m playing there’s no game,” he said. “I’m literally going to be in Pittsburgh for eight days because I’m going to a Steelers game the week before.”
After nearly two decades playing Bruce, Marmo still isn’t ready to say goodbye to the role. That might be because of the other work he does at the same time. He has had roles in TV shows including “General Hospital” and “Criminal Minds” and has shot three different pilots. He’s also a filmmaker, a director and runs two theater companies.
“I always feel like the day I am phoning it in is the day I’m going to walk off the stage and so far, it hasn’t happened,” he said. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.