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Lenny Bruce: In His Own Words

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Life never stopped Lenny Bruce from speaking his mind, so why should death? Nearly 40 years after dying from a morphine overdose, the groundbreaking shock comic still stands as an exemplar of a personal freedom fighter, someone for whom the First Amendment was the next best thing to a Commandment.

Perhaps, then, that makes Jason Fisher Moses? Or at least Charlton Heston. Either way, he's adroitly donning the Bruce mantle in Lenny Bruce...In His Own Words, at the Zipper. Joan Worth and Alan Sacks have, as the title suggests, cobbled the show together from Bruce's own words to recreate the living, breathing embodiment of freedom of speech. But as conceivers and directors of the evening, they succeed only partially. Fisher's achievement, on the other hand, is practically total.

He doesn't "play" Bruce in the traditional sense, nor does he "become" him the way actors in one-person shows are generally expected to do. The impersonation of Bruce's poured-gravel voice and distinct mannerisms - leering at the audience, trying to summon a trance to "force" out punchlines - are all here.

But if you'll never mistake Fisher for Bruce - he's too clean-cut, his good looks too polished, his default nature recalls sunlight rather than shadow - he faultlessly establishes anew the mythos of the much-vilified (and adored) comedian, bringing to the Zipper stage a full-on resuscitation of a Bruce act with all the concomitant pleasures and shortcomings. For 65 minutes, Fisher - doing nothing more than reciting some of Bruce's most famous jokes - makes the audience and its own prejudices and propriety the focus.

If you're too young to have seen the real Bruce live, to experience the sense of confusion, wonderment, and apprehension he elicited from the people who saw him, this is as close as you'll get. When he assesses the racial and cultural background of the audience using every imaginable pejorative for black people, Irish people, and so forth, you can feel the unease of those around you settling in your spine. You can hear isolated titters from various parts of the audience identify those who are losing their ability to determine whether it's proper to laugh. And the people who don't laugh, who merely stare at the stage agape (and, yes, such people do attend), create an equally telling silence.

That's the real show here. Fisher superbly marshals it into a shockingly theatrical evening that succeeds in spite of the one glaring flaw that Worth and Sacks have had no luck circumventing: Bruce's once-unique brand of gleefully obscene, offensive humor (which today's overused term "politically correct" is insufficient to describe) is too commonplace today for all his juicier bits to retain the bite that once particularized them.

A lengthy sequence about the increasingly corporate nature of organized religion feels somewhat na´ve by today's standards. Riffs on the Kennedy assassination don't resonate as piercingly as they did in the 1960s. And Bruce's classic sketch about the establishment of Hitler - he was in the right place at the right time and listened to the right people - darkly amuses but doesn't bowl over. Yet 40 years later, these topics still remain things we're just not supposed to talk about.

That's precisely the point - when do social and cultural taboos fade away, allowing people to just talk, without fear of retribution (Bruce was arrested nearly two dozen times in various cities)? Bruce would likely argue that we're not there yet; Worth and Sacks obviously agree, and if you do, too, Lenny Bruce...In His Own Words is a must-see. Everyone else, though, should think twice, especially if they fear being fed hamburger from the sacred cows that Fisher's Bruce so effectively slaughters and grinds.


Lenny Bruce: In His Own Words
Through February 25
Running time: 65 minutes, with no intermission
Zipper Theatre, 336 West 37th Street between 8th and 9th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge