Purring sensually with a slight nasal New York accent, dressed in a black suit, white shirt and a black tie and handling a microphone while in front of its stand, actor Ronnie Marmo vocally and physically conjures up the presence of that monumental performer in his imaginative self-written solo show, I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce. The rascally Mr. Marmo’s haunted facial features, wild eyes and styled dark hair all evoke an accurate resemblance.
“The hip Jewish version of James Dean’s” comic timing, gestures and rhythms are dynamically reproduced by the limber and animated Marmo as he recreates the fabled sexually, politically and racially charged routines, rehashes the court cases and delves into the drugs and promiscuity. A major facet of Marmo’s bang-up performance is his smoothly alternating between hilariously replicating Lenny Bruce’s polished stylings of controversially explicit language during his prime, along with his agonized ramblings when he was strung out and unraveling at the end.
Marmo’s clever non-linear script begins and ends with the nude heroin overdose on a toilet in 1966 at the age of 40 and jumps back and forth in time. It’s centered around Bruce’s three great loves; his mother the comedian Sally Marr (1906-1997), his wife the stripper Honey Harlow (1927-2005) and his daughter Kitty Bruce (b.1955).
Director Joe Mantegna’s robust staging places Marmo in numerous sections of the large playing area and periodically out into the audience for brief interactions. Mr. Mantegna perfectly achieves the desired netherworld theatricality of Bruce chronicling his life to a nightclub gathering with choice presentational flourishes that harness the excellent production elements for an optimum of visual force.
With The Cutting Room’s red velvet curtain on the stage’s back wall, a few wooden chairs, a toilet and a microphone all strategically placed, scenic designer Matt Richter creates an appropriately stark and spare environment. Mr. Richter’s lighting design has a smoky vintage texture richly conveying a dreamy atmosphere while occasionally bathed in blue hues. The recorded jazzy musical interludes are keenly rendered by music supervisor Wendy Marmo. Simulated audience outbursts including a heckler, trial dialogue and effects such as a car crash are components of Hope Bello LaRoux’s bracing sound design. Costume designer Lauren Winnenberg’s Rat Pack ensemble is spot on.
Releasing a series of best-selling comedy albums, having popular night club gigs and with widely seen network television appearances, the Long Island-born Bruce came to prominence in the 1950’s as a “sick comic” due to his edgy material. This culminated with a show at Carnegie Hall in 1961. Also, that year he was arrested for obscenity in San Francisco and for drug possession in Philadelphia. That became the pattern for the rest of his life and in 1964 after a six-month trial in New York he was found guilty of obscenity. He paved the way for comedians who came after him, most notably George Carlin. In later years, Honey Harlow led a campaign to have him posthumously pardoned which Governor George Pataki granted in 2003.
Besides showcasing the immense talents of Ronnie Marmo, I’m Not A Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce serves as a bold testament to the magnitude of its subject’s cultural relevance, historical significance and to how funny he was.
I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce, with opening act Pearls Daily (extended through June 1, 2019)
Just Words Productions, LLC, in association with Theatre 68 and Kitty Bruce
The Box, 189 Chrystie Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.LennyBruceOnStage.com
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission