Review by Elyse Trevers
Thanks to Amazon’s hit television series, “The Amazing Mrs. Maisel,” the comedian Lenny Bruce has found a new generation of fans. In the first season, Bruce is a key player as Mrs. Maisel begins her career as a comedienne. When they are arrested together, Bruce (played by Luke Kirby) offers her advice and she bails him out. The next time she’s arrested, he bails her out of jail.
In the one-man show he wrote, “I’m Not a Comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce,” Ronnie Marmo portrays the comedian. Arrested for obscenity, Bruce fought the courts on the basis of freedom of speech, but despite a lot of positive support, he was sentenced on Dec. 21, 1964 to four months in Riker’s Island. He was set free on bail during the appeals process, but died before the appeal was decided. Bruce’s impassioned speech in the courtroom is the most dramatic section of the 90-minute play.
Directed by Joe Mantegna, the show begins with the vision of Bruce dead of a heroin overdose, sitting naked on the toilet seat. The show flashes back to his youth and his first time onstage, as the MC in a small theater where his mother was performing.
The hardworking Marmo intersperses major events of the comic’s history and family with short segments of the comic’s routines. He discusses the three important women in his life, his mother who was a single mom, his stripper wife and later his young daughter. While these women were obviously significant in his life, his legal issues and his involvement with drugs are far more riveting.
The comic bits, especially when he interacts with the audience, even coming off the stage, are the best moments in the show. Bruce begins by using pejorative slang terms for every ethnic group and then tells us that by using those negative terms, the words wouldn’t have the power to hurt anymore.
Bruce was a groundbreaker. His use of language, particularly sexual and curse words, was unthinkable at the time They were, in fact, considered obscene and illegal. In the play Marmo says that Bruce felt he was targeted because of a routine he did against all religions.
In the second season of the TV show, Mrs. Maisel accompanies Bruce to his guest appearance on “The Steve Allen Show,” where he tells a story and sings about a marriage breaking up and being lonely. The segment on Amazon wasn’t particularly humorous, but it is somewhat poignant when Marmo performs it in his show.
After the sold-out run in LA, the Off-Broadway show running at The Cutting Room on E. 32 Street is set in an actual nightclub and the audience members sit at bistro tables. Originally slated to close in December, the show has just extended its run through the end of January.
Marmo suggests that Bruce saw himself as an iconoclast, busting false idols and concepts. “I never meant to shock an audience. I wasn’t looking to inform them. I was just pointing out things that the rest of society was too chicken shit to say out loud. That we live in a very hypocritical world. The things we say are not always the things we do.”
So if you come to the show, expecting a riotous 90 minutes, you will be disappointed. What you will get is a lesson is the development of mores and language. Ironically, today language has become all too coarse and familiar. Terms that were once inflammatory now emblazon T-shirts and are used for the lyrics of rap songs. Yet, Bruce was imprisoned for merely saying them.
In a powerful conclusion, the audience hears snippets of popular comedians, including Richard Pryor, and George Carlin, using those same terms and worse, but with impunity. Words still have the power to hurt; but now, thanks to Bruce, they are not illegal.