GREAT BARRINGTON — Some stars shine bright, then slowly fade away. Not standup comedian and social activist Lenny Bruce. A fiery meteor blazing across the sky, he burned up in the repressive culture of his time as he crashed down to earth.
Bruce lived at the intersection of freedom of speech and obscenity, wearing his notoriety like a badge of honor. Despite multiple arrests for indecency — his performances were closely monitored — Bruce remained defiant to the end.
He was so much more than a comic, says actor and writer Ronnie Marmo, whose solo show “I’m Not A Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce” runs for two nights on Oct. 14 and 15 at the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington.
The 90-minute play, which includes excerpts from Bruce’s stand-up acts, follows him from childhood to untimely, though not surprising, death by accidental drug overdose at age 40 in 1966..
Marmo had performed an earlier Lenny Bruce show for two six month runs, five years apart.
“There was more to Lenny’s story that I needed to say, he was much more complex than that play offered,” Marmo said by phone from Los Angeles. “So I wrote my own play. Lenny and I had many things in common.”
Bruce’s daughter Kitty Bruce helped provide background material. “We went through the boxes in the attic, literally and figuratively,” Marmo said. “She gave me her blessing.”
He asked Tony-winning stage, screen and TV actor Joe Mantegna to direct his solo show.
Two decades ago, he had written a film script from his play “West of Brooklyn” with a part perfect for Mantegna.
“I sent a letter to a P.O. Box, and three days later he called me,” Marmo recalled. “He did the film and has been so important to me ever since. He’s like my second dad.”
Marmo, who spent three years on “General Hospital,” started his own theater company in 2001, after doing scene work on Monday nights with actor friends, which continues to this day in both California and New York.
“One of my biggest passions is to nurture other artists,” he said.
Marmo opened the new Bruce play in 2017 in his Theater 68 in North Hollywood. A six week run lasted 18 months, followed by nine months in New York City and two six month runs in Chicago. Just recently, it launched Marmo’s newly-expanded Theater 68 Arts Complex.
The play’s success owes much to the hit television show, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which features Bruce prominently.
“When they auditioned for that show, I was in my first tech week,” Marmo said. “Talk about serendipity! It exposed an entire generation to Lenny’s name.”
It’s more of a tame introduction to Lenny, he added. “When you come to my show, and I’m dead naked on the toilet, that’s a very different thing.”
Marmo met his new wife, actor Janelle Gaeta, in 2020 when both performed at the same venue. Mantegna got ordained and married the couple in California this summer. Their Berkshires visit will be a mini-honeymoon, Marmo said.
“Ronnie is such a tremendous talent,” Mantegna said by phone from Los Angeles, where he’s filming a reboot of “Criminal Minds,” the hit TV series he starred in for 14 seasons.
“Not only did he conceive of the material, he does an incredible job performing it. Kitty Bruce says it’s the best portrayal of her father she’s ever seen.”
“The play is about Lenny’s journey, interspersed with his material, and how doing that impacted him. It starts at the end, goes back to the beginning, and winds up at the end again.”
“It’s a perfect example of why the theater masks are comedy and tragedy. That was Lenny’s life.”
He deliberately chose a simple staging, just two chairs and that toilet.
Mantegna watched Bruce perform on Hugh Hefner’s 1960s “Playboy After Dark” TV show in his Chicago hometown.
“I knew he was controversial, I understood the influence he had on people who followed him, like George Carlin and Richard Prior,” Mantegna said. “Both were vocal about what they owed Lenny.”
Material he was crucified for back then would probably be OK now, he said, while other things tolerated then might not be now.
“One example is sensitivity to words. You can get away with saying the F-word nowadays, but you can’t say the N-word.”
They decided not to include Bruce’s notorious riff on the N-word.
“People might not get past hearing it, despite the fact he was trying to un-demonize it,” Mantegna explained.
As for a stream of ethnic slurs, he noted, “Bruce was making the point, why are we letting these words destroy us? There’s a line in the play where Lenny says, you know what offends me? Segregation.”
Bruce wasn’t the first comic with drug problems. Mantegna acknowledged. “But his talent would be just as brilliant today as it was then. He was ahead of his time and would be now. In the play he says, I never did an act, all I did was hold up a mirror to society.”
“Lenny Bruce was a man fighting his inner demons alongside the first amendment right to tell the truth,” Marmo once wrote. “The play follows the life and struggles of the most ground-breaking comedian of all time, a counter-cultural hero who risked it all in the quest for his vision of true freedom.”
“He wasn’t just a comic,” said Marmo. “He was way more than just comedy.”
IF YOU GO
What: “I’m Not A Comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce” Solo show written and performed by Ronnie Marmo, and directed by Joe Mantegna.
Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington
When: 8 p.m., Oct. 14 and 15
Tickets: $25, upper balcony; $35, reserved, upper balcony; $50, preferred; $60, premium.
Information: 413-528-0100, mahaiwe.org
COVID-19 protocol: Masks required. Please make sure vaccinations are up to date or you test negative prior to attending an event.