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I'm Not A Comedian . . . I'm Lenny Bruce

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 4, 2018

Ronnie Marmo
Photo by Doren Sorell Photography

How does anyone become a trailblazer? Chances are, it's not by design. It's usually more a matter of being the one in the limelight just as things fall into place. Tag. You're it! Case in point: comic Lenny Bruce, who will forever be regarded as a groundbreaking iconoclast despite the fact that he "just wanted to be the hip Jew version of James Dean." Now, fifty years after his death, he is back in the public's eye. In one venue, he appears as a continuing character on Amazon's multiple award-winning web series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." And onstage, he is the subject of I'm Not A Comedian . . . I'm Lenny Bruce, opening tonight at The Cutting Room, a club not unlike the fondly-remembered Greenwich Village haunt, the Cafe Au Go Go, where Bruce performed and famously got arrested on obscenity charges back in the 1960s.

Written by and starring Ronnie Marmo and directed by Joe Mantegna, the solo show is much more than a staged reproduction of a Lenny Bruce performance. Marmo does incorporate portions of Bruce's act, and he does a very good job of capturing the loose improv jazz-like style of the original. But more than that, he is committed to telling Bruce's personal story. What emerges is a tale of a complicated man, sometimes bravely taking on the establishment and arguing First Amendment rights, and sometimes collapsing under the crush of it all.

The 1960s is often described as an era of unbridled sex, drugs, and rock ‘n' roll, but it could also be quite repressive to anyone whose words or actions ruffled the feathers of the police or the courts or religious leaders. Today, anyone who has cable television or who goes to the movies or theater will find Bruce's effusive use of undeleted expletives to be unremarkable. But not then.

Some of the most compelling moments in the show focus on Bruce's court appearances and his pleas on behalf of freedom of expression. Or as he more colorfully puts it: "You take away the right to say ‘fuck,' you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government.'" There's also a very funny bit involving the substitution of nonsense syllables for a certain sex act, as when he points to an audience member and asks: "You, sir. Have you ever had your blah blah'ed? And just remember, it's illegal to say and illegal to do."

But long before the multiple arrests and convictions, jail time, and his sad death at the age of 40 from a drug overdose, Bruce just wanted to break into show business. Marmo includes stories about the comic's early years, including his first gig in 1947 at a club where his mother worked as a dancer. With no one else around to call upon, the manager tapped him to MC the show. As Marmo tells it, Bruce went instantly from a jaunty sense of confidence to a paralyzing case of flop sweat, which left him tongue-tied until an improvised response to a heckler drew laughter. From then on, he was hooked almost as surely as he became hooked on the morphine that would take his life.

Throughout his performance, Marmo presents us with a man who has a voracious appetite for an audience's love and laughter, always ready with a million-watt smile even when he grows increasingly wobbly on his feet. Occasionally, Marmo also shows us Bruce's sentimental side, especially when he is talking about his ex-wife and his daughter. It is the sloppy sort of sentiment one associates with an addict, full of regret and self-flagellation, and while we would wish for an edgier performance at these times, it shows us a side of Bruce we don't often hear about.

It's hard to say whether his fame and influence on such comics as Richard Pryor and George Carlin, whose monologue "Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television" draws directly from Bruce's efforts at defanging racism, intolerance, and religious hypocrisy, would have survived much past his lifetime if he hadn't gotten so much push-back from the powers-that-be. Still, he remains a vivid reminder of those rough-and-tumble years for non-conforming standup comics, a master of free association and risk-taking spontaneity who would later show up on the cover of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band Album," have a song written about him by Bob Dylan, and be pardoned by New York Republican Governor George Pataki in 2003, long after he was dead and gone. Bruce likely would have appreciated the irony. With this show, Ronnie Marmo is giving Bruce the kind of justice he also would have appreciated, another audience.

I'm Not A Comedian . . . I'm Lenny Bruce
Through December 30
The Cutting Room, 44 East 32nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix