As you enter the Elizabeth Ross Johnson Theater at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center to see “I’m Not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce,” a sign warns that the play includes vulgar language (as well as strobe lights, and brief nudity). But is that really necessary? If there is one thing that practically everyone knows about Lenny Bruce, it is that he used vulgar language. You might as well tell people going to see “Hamlet” that they are going to encounter iambic pentameter.
The best thing about “I’m Not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce,” though, is that, as its title implies, it is not just about his controversial standup routines, but goes beyond that to depict the tragedy of his life, which ended — as this play starts — with his 1966 death by overdose, at the age of 40.
“Let me tell you how I got here,” says Bruce (played by Ronnie Marmo, who wrote the one-man plays and stars in it, with direction by Joe Mantegna). And that’s what “I’m Not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce” is all about.
And so Bruce talks about his life, in between excerpts from his comedy routines and, later, rants inspired by his legal troubles. Period-accurate jazz music often plays in the background. Marmo ventures into the audience and, true to Bruce’s confrontational nature, makes audience members squirm with some blunt questions about sex.
Bruce is portrayed, early on, as a callow youth wearing a “bar mitzvah blue” suit, at his first gig hosting a burlesque show. He is a wreck, but has a triumphant moment putting a heckler in his place, and is hooked.
“From that first night onstage, until now, I found my voice, not only as just a comedian, but someone in our society who had something to say,” he says.
That “something of say,” of course, has to do with freedom of speech. Bruce gets attention, good and bad, by using words considered obscene in his act, but his success doesn’t last. His legal struggles mount. His marriage falls apart and his relationship with his daughter becomes strained. He has money problems, and a monumental drug addiction.
The world of entertainment would change soon enough — and become, I believe, better for it, with more honesty and less polite pretense — but he wouldn’t be around to see it.
(Unexpectedly, this Bruce sometimes speaks about things that happened after his death, such as New York Gov. George Pataki giving him a posthumous pardon, and his mother, also a comedian, discovering Sam Kinison and Cheech & Chong.)
Marmo convincingly portrays all the different Bruces: the smooth-talking playboy, the casually foul-mouthed stage performer, the obsessive lover and, ultimately, the addict whose life unravels in every possible way. Marmo’s Bruce is at his most compelling in segments that have nothing to do with obscenity, such as his rhapsodic account of meeting and falling in love with his wife, and his harrowing tale about both of them being injured in a horrific car accident, and his fear that he might lose her.
As far as the standup routines … I’ve always felt that while Bruce paved the way for boundary-pushing comedians such as George Carlin and Richard Pryor, if you really want to laugh, it’s Carlin’s and Pryor’s recordings you should listen to, not Bruce’s. And this play did nothing to change my mind about that. Yes, Bruce was a competent standup, and there are some laughs in this show. But he’s not a comedic genius and, honestly, if it wasn’t for the brave stance he took on free-speech issues, and the tumult of his personal life, this play (or, for that matter, the Tony-winning 1971 play “Lenny,” which was later made into an excellent movie starring Dustin Hoffman, or Bob Dylan’s song “Lenny Bruce”) would not exist.
But he did take that stance, and live a wild life, and, you could argue, change the world. And it all started with some modest standup routines in which he, really, just talked the way people talk when they’re not onstage.
“I’m Not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce,” which Marmo has been presenting at various theaters around the country since 2017, reminds us of that. And I hope he keeps on doing it for a long time.
Remaining performances of “I’m Not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce” at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center will take place Jan. 12-13 at 8 p.m. Visit nbpac.org.
For more on the play, visit lennybruceonstage.com.
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