When Lenny Bruce was found dead in his Hollywood Boulevard apartment in August 1966, the headline in the New York Times obituary diplomatically described him as an “uninhibited” comic. It was a tame adjective for this incendiary performer, despised in many quarters as an obscene and immoral clown, while regaled in other (perhaps worldlier) circles as a fearless and trenchant satirist.
Bruce was only 40 when he died, broke in more ways than one — his brushes with the law having taken a toll on both his wallet and his psyche. America mid–20th century was a good deal more buttoned up than it is today, and Bruce’s scatological language and candid riffs on sex, racism and religion — not to mention his personal drug habits — netted him numerous arrests and incarceration.
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Artfully directed by Joe Mantegna, I Am Not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce is an 85-minute solo piece with writer-performer Ronnie Marmo in an intense and memorable performance as the infamous iconoclast. The show opens with a striking visual: a naked figure — the dead comic — bathed in white light, slumped on a toilet seat on an otherwise dark stage (lighting by Matt Richter on Danny Cistone’s set). After a minute, the figure stirs and begins to dress, all the while confiding intimately to the audience the details of Bruce’s background: his boyhood as Leonard Alfred Schneider in Long Island, the only child of a divorced mother — a vibrant woman and a friend, as well as a parent. The narrative then builds to his first club appearance when he filled in for the regular MC — and became hooked on performing.
Throughout, Marmo weaves accounts of Bruce’s relationship with the three women he loved — his mother, his wife and his daughter — with re-enactments of some of his most celebrated riffs, along with depictions of his clashes with the law. We witness his desperate pleas to a judge (to no avail) that he be allowed to perform his act in court to prove his bona fides as a social commentator as opposed to an unprincipled mouthpiece of public obscenity, which is how he was being viewed. Another powerful sequence describes the moments following an automobile crash in which he watches, anguished and helpless, as a vehicle rolls over his wife’s body; then he’s at her side, frantically begging God for her life, his scorn for religion dismissed in seconds of a terrible crisis.
What powers the play is not only the inherent drama, of tragic proportions, in Bruce’s life but also Marmo’s flawless embodiment of the man. There’s never a moment when we doubt the person before us is this smart, tormented individual come to life. It’s an illuminating in-depth performance, worthy of its subject, a singular artist come and gone before his time.