Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Doren Sorell.
As the darkness recedes, leaving a soft blue light, a naked white man sits slumped over on a toilet. This is Lenny Bruce, portrayed by Ronnie Marmo, who is also the playwright of I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce, a biographical one-man show that takes us deep into the life of a man who, by saying whatever he wished to and being pilloried for it by the American justice system for what they called “blasphemy” and “profanity,” changed the very nature of stand-up comedy, making possible such greats as Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and many, many others. From his toilet perch, Marmo tells us that this is how police said Bruce died: strung out and sitting in his bathroom. (The play later implies that some of the specifics may have been staged.) As he methodically puts his clothing back on, the actor begins a 90-minute episodic review of some of the most memorable moments in the comedian’s life both on and off stage.
It’s probably safe to assume that almost everyone in the audience has at least a general awareness of Bruce, his comedy, and his importance to history. It’s probably also safe to assume that most of them are fairly light on the specifics. Marmo’s full-on channeling of the comedian/satirist, which was hailed by Bruce’s daughter—who is one of the play’s producers—as the best she’s ever seen, serves as either a primer or a refresher course on his subject depending on what is needed. My guess is that, for most of us, it will be a bit of both.
The nature of Bruce’s act was confrontational. He attacked head-on subject matter that had, before he came along, been unheard-of in comedy. He brazenly spoke of race, religion, politics, sex, jazz, patriotism, abortion, and anything else that came into his mind, and he did so without pulling any punches. Marmo’s script shows him being stalked by the police and hauled into court on multiple occasions due to the topics he was discussing or the language with which he did so. Bruce was the first comedian to be utterly unafraid of using words generally condemned by society, and he paid the price for it. One key scene has Marmo/Bruce arguing passionately before an unhearing judge that he has the Constitutional right to freedom of speech before being summarily sentenced to jail. It all seems so absurd when viewed through the lens of a world in which Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” is seen as quaint and any stand-up special on Netflix is likely to have far more graphic sexual talk than Bruce would ever have dreamed of. But we have Bruce to thank for that lens: he was the one who broke down the barriers.
Not that everything he did was hilarious. Marmo spends considerable time showing us the more genuine and intense side of Bruce, including his “All Alone” bit from his appearance on the “Steve Allen Show,” a monologue/song in which Bruce bemoans the apparent end of his marriage to former stripper Honey Harlow. Marmo gets very serious discussing the depth of Bruce’s love for Harlow despite the myriad fights and temporary breakups that made them seem like anything but the ideal couple. He makes it clear that the main cause of their problems was drug abuse. (Harlow actually served two years for it; Bruce suffered from addiction throughout the last decade of his life.) Despite divorcing in 1959, Bruce and Harlow continued to see each other until his death (at age forty, of an overdose) in 1966.
As blunt as Marmo is with the darker side of Bruce, he also spends considerable time letting us see the brilliant comedy that made the man famous. One example, that occurred after he was arrested for using the word “cocksucker” in a show, made comedic mincemeat out of the government’s entire argument. By discussing the incident and substituting “blahblahblah” for the offensive term, he proved that the content was every bit as funny and utterly clear; despite the word’s never appearing, it is impossible not to know what is being referenced.
“How many men here have ever had your blah blahed?” he asks, along with “How many have ever blahed a blah?” before stating accurately that this performance, which violated no norms at all, was the dirtiest one he’d ever given.
This was Bruce’s genius, and Marmo has as much fun with it as his subject ever did: he was a stream of consciousness comedian, a bold product of the jazz age, who enjoyed riffing on a subject as much as performing a pre-written routine. It was a trait that caused him to be blacklisted in many clubs and on television as the owners/producers could never be certain he wouldn’t ad-lib something profane. (Marmo shows him having fun with this idea on his “Steve Allen Show” appearance, as he immediately veers from his carefully vetted routine before cracking up about it and promising to stick to the script.)
If we know about Bruce, it is likely to be from a distance (though he was the subject of Bob Fosse’s 1974 film “Lenny”) or as a character on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Marmo’s indelible performance, though, takes the time to allow us to get to know the man as well as the comedian. His portrayal is full of Bruce’s joy of performance but it is also rife with the pain that his persecutors caused him. In the courtroom scene I mentioned earlier, the anguish and sincere confusion on Marmo/Bruce’s face and in his voice is almost hard to watch, and when he is later shown trying and failing to do a routine in a drug-addled state, Marmo’s performance brings the final collapse of this innovative comic to center stage. He changed the world, but the world ultimately broke him, as society tends to do with visionaries.
One of the best things about Marmo’s biographical play for me was that, when it was finished, I felt the need to find videos of the actual Bruce at work. (As you might imagine, there aren’t very many, but his talent and charisma are clearly visible in those that survive.) For the time being, though, watching Marmo completely inhabit the man is as good as it gets: this show, both humorous and devastating, gives us Bruce in all of his many moods and leaves the audience with a deep understanding not only of who he was but of the legacy he left behind. Next time you watch one of those Netflix comics, recognize the debt they owe to Lenny Bruce, who made it all possible.
I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce is a Theatre 68 production now playing at Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL, until Feb 16. The show runs approximately 90 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.