“Obscene, provocative, criminal, controversial”—those are words used to describe Lenny Bruce, the stand-up comedian and scathing social critic who gained popularity in the 1950s and ’60s. I’m Not A Comedian, I’m Lenny Bruce, written by and starring Ronnie Marmo, captures both the acerbic and the soft sides of Bruce, who was a man seeking a voice in an oppressive time for free speech.
He was considered a “blue comic”—“blue” being a designation for profanity and sexual imagery. As a result, most of Bruce’s professional life was spent fighting charges brought against him by authorities. His comedy, which focused on religion, sex and racism, was not merely for pranks but to jolt the system and shine a spotlight on the hypocrisy in society. When talking about sexuality, he said: "If something about the human body disgusts you, complain to the manufacturer.”
Bruce (1925–66) grew up Leonard Alfred Schneider on Long Island, N.Y. His mother, Sally Marr, was a nightclub entertainer and dancer. He got his start as an emcee in one of the clubs she worked in. There is no doubt of his humble beginnings—Marmo, as the young Bruce, is doubled over the toilet, paralyzed with stage fright; it’s a scene made funnier by the fact that Bruce became so fearless later on as an entertainer. Under Joe Mantagna’s direction, the show reveals a more vulnerable side to Bruce.
Mantegna uses the stage expertly to highlight different aspects of Bruce’s experiences—from the nightclub stage to a jail cell, to the hotel where he died. The show starts with a naked Bruce slumped over the toilet, dead, then rewinds to chronicle Bruce’s life from childhood to that final moment. A pared-down set that consists of a microphone, a chair and a toilet, and Matt Richter’s lighting are used effectively to move us from one scene to the next. Scenes are accompanied by a jazzy score (Hope Bello Laroux) interspersed with sound effects to underscore the action. Marmo has been performing the role for more than two years, and there is a lived-in comfort in his performance as Bruce.
The Cutting Room, where the show takes place, is the perfect venue for the production. It’s a bar/restaurant that typically offers live music as well as staged performances. Celebrities appear often, such as Lady Gaga who played there in her early years, and Cynthia Nixon first discussed her bid for mayor while celebrating her birthday there. Audience members sit at tables, and Marmo works the crowd much like Bruce must have done during his stand-up shows. He calls out to audience members, sits near the tables closer to downstage, or inserts himself into a small group and interrogates the people about their sex lives. There is something both off-putting—being put on the spot is never fun—but also titillating. There’s a sense that you become a confidante in these moments.
As writer, Marmo also touchingly brings to light Bruce’s relationship with Honey Harlow, a stripper he married in the early 1950s. Their relationship is described as a true love affair, although it ended in less than 10 years. Their daughter, Kitty Bruce, was born in 1955. Ironically, Bruce was awarded custody—one of the few fathers in California at the time to be granted custody—but between his legal battles and his fight with addiction, Bruce’s mother raised Kitty, who has gone on to become a champion of her father’s. In 2008, she established the Lenny Bruce Memorial Foundation, which works to combat alcohol/drug addiction with scholarships and education.
By the early 1960s, Bruce had been banned from several U.S. cities; nightclubs feared prosecution as well, and in 1966, he was found dead of a drug overdose. His legacy, however, lives on and Bruce appears as a major character in the current Amazon show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Bruce believed in the justice system, and although he went broke from defending himself legally, he felt it was unjust to silence someone who was holding a mirror up to society. He continued to fight charges until the end. Thanks to him, comedians have freedom to design their comedy skits however they like, and have benefited from the path that Bruce forged as a comic.
I’m Not A Comedian, I’m Lenny Bruce plays through Jan. 25 at the Cutting Room, 44 E 32nd St. Performances are at 7 p.m. Jan. 3, 6, and 9; matinees are at 1 p.m. Jan. 13 and 19. Tickets range from $50–$125. For more information and to purchase tickets, call (212) 691-1900 or visit www.LennyBruceOnStage.com .