I’m Not a Comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce
At the Royal George Cabaret Theatre by Dan Zeff
Chicago—“I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce” is the somewhat quizzical title of a comic/dramatic one man show at the Royal George Cabaret Theatre that explores the life and career of Lenny Bruce. Back in the 1950’s and early 1960’s Bruce was one of the most famous comics on the American scene, either celebrated or vilified for his use of scatological language and his in-your-face satire of this country’s most sacred thematic cows, like sex, organized religion, politics, and racial attitudes.
Bruce died in 1966, at the age of 40 from a drug overdose but he left his stamp on decades of American comedians and actors, like Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Eddie Murphy. Actor/playwright Ronnie Marmo impersonates Bruce in a 90-minute show which he also wrote, with the noted American director Joe Mantegna handling the staging. Marmo has constructed his play as a combination autobiographical monologue combined with bits from his nightclub performances. The result is an absorbing journey, sometimes funny sometimes sad, portrayal of Bruce’s complex personality. By the end of the show the audience has been taken on a wild ride, though the play doesn’t answer the ultimate question, What made Lenny Bruce tick?
Marmo, who looks a bit like the actual Lenny Bruce, constructs his play like an elaborate flashback. The opening moments show a naked Lenny Bruce sitting on a toilet, dead of a morphine overdose. The man then appears from the afterlife to recount his turbulent life. The narrative runs chronologically, beginning with Bruce’s early years living with his divorced mother. He served in the Navy during World War II and then starting his show business career in the small clubs in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
Bruce rapidly gained attention for his liberal use of four-letter words and for his savage attacks on American social institutions, both religious and secular. Bruce was an angry young man and he presented his anger and outrage as free-form improvisational-sounding attacks on what he despised in American life, which was a lot. Bruce was both a mainstream celebrity and hip fighter for free speech until the end of his life. At his peak Bruce’s autobiography “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People,” serialized in “Playboy” in 1964 and 1965, was a national best seller.
Much of Bruce’s material was brilliant. He had an extraordinary mastery of language and at his best his ideas were both scintillating in their expression and fascinating in their insights. But when he wasn’t at his best, especially near his death, his performances turned into rant and emotional meltdown.
Personal aside: I saw Bruce perform twice in Chicago in the early 1960’s. In the first show, he was brilliant, the scintillating wit and insight pouring out in a nonstop flood of ideas. He tossed in his hilarious experience trying to find something to do one evening in Milwaukee that I still remember fondly. The second appearance saw Bruce at the end of his tether. He had descended into a verbal sprawl of unconnected thoughts and profanities that embarrassed the man and his audience. His drug use and endless harassment from the establishment (police, courts, organized religion, and the like) destroyed him, and his death by drug overdose should have surprised no one.
Marmo beautifully traces the trajectory of Bruce the comic genius to Bruce, defeated and distraught and finally dead. There is much humor, of course, but also moments of searing drama, like Bruce almost losing the love of his life in an automobile accident and especially his frantic pleas to be allowed to defend himself in an unsympathetic courtroom against obscenity charges, digging a deeper legal hole for himself with every frantic utterance.
Marmo’s Bruce is a martyr to his savage assaults on establishment hypocrisy. But he seemed to go out of his way to antagonize, which inevitably and understandably led to his ruin. Other comedians of his day, like Mort Sahl and Dick Gregory, lambasted the American scene but they didn’t go over the top in insulting the audiences they were trying to convince.
Marmo portrays Bruce in all his cutting edge intensity with conviction and credibility but the play cannot explain why Bruce went so far outside the lines. He was a driven man but we don’t grasp the origin of the demons that drove him. Still, there was a seed of inexplicable masochism that stirred a talented and intelligent and articulate man to conspire in his final destruction. A play called “Lenny” ran on Broadway in 1971 and 1972 that explored Bruce’s rise and fall and but couldn’t explain what made the man tick any more clearly than the Marmo play. Probably there is no discoverable answer. In the end, Bruce was less a funny man than a tragic figure overburdened by his disgust with the evils he saw in American culture.
Mamo’s play has found the perfect venue in the cabaret theater, with its intimacy and informality, allowing Marmo to casually address the audience in an unforced manner. The play partly takes on the feel of a spontaneous conversation between the actor and the audience. The physical production is minimal, the set consisting of a couple of chairs, a couple of microphones, and the toilet. There are enough sound effects and lighting effects to add seasoning to the staging, but appropriately it’s the words and not any special effects that make the show work.
It’s too bad Bruce did not live to see his outrageousness turn into prophecy. The raw language that infuriated so many people in his day can now be heard in PG-13 movies and commonly on television. He died of an illicit drug overdose and today marijuana can be bought over the counter. The times they have been a-changing and Lenny Bruce and his legacy can take some strong bows. For those who know little or nothing of this gifted and tragic figure, the Marmo play is a persuasive starting point.
‘Lenny Bruce’ gets a rating of.
“I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce” is running at the Royal George Cabaret Theatre. The production is currently on hiatus and resumes performances from January 24 through February 16. Performances are Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m. Tickets are $69 to $79. Call (312) 988-9000 or visit LennyBruceOnStage.com.