Ask most people about Lenny Bruce and the first words that pop into their heads might be “comedian,” “arrested,” and “obscenity.”  That and maybe “died young” and “drug overdose.”

All of the above do indeed fit the Lenny we know from early 1960s newspaper articles, but the real Lenny Bruce was so much more than that. Unfortunately, since only folks well into their sixties are likely to have seen Lenny perform live, and since the comic only appeared on network television a grand total of six times, there’s very little of Lenny on video for younger generations to discover what the comic was really all about.

Notwithstanding, and despite so little of Lenny remaining on film or videotape, Lenny Bruce placed 3rd on Comedy Central’s 2004 list of the 100 Greatest Stand-Ups Of All Time.  (Only Richard Pryor and George Carlin topped him, and neither could have achieved the kind of fame they did without Lenny’s influence.)

Lenny Bruce’s death from a drug overdose in 1966 at the age of forty ended Lenny’s life, but not his legend.  

Lenny Bruce Is Back (And Boy Is He Pissed), Sam Bobrick and Julie Stein’s one-person bio-play, brings Lenny back to life in the year 2010 and has him look back on his life and legend, commenting on the many changes which have transformed our world in the forty-four years since his death.

Directed with imagination and flair by eight-time Daytime Emmy Award winner Bob Guza and featuring a tour de force solo performance by Ronnie Marmo, Theatre 68’s production of Lenny Bruce Is Back (And Boy Is He Pissed) is a fascinating, funny, and insightful look at a man who truly epitomizes the words “ahead of his time.”

Though copyright laws prevent Bobrick and Stein from using Lenny’s actual material, the Lenny we meet at his San Fernando gravesite seems very close to the one we’ve heard about and perhaps seen in his few filmed stage appearances.

As the play’s title indicates, Lenny is as pissed as ever. He’s pissed to be buried in the Valley, and that if he gets “ten fucking visitors a year, I’m lucky.”  He’s pissed that his gravestone reads Lenny “Bruce” Schneider, as if anyone has any idea who Lenny Schneider was. He’s pissed that he wasn’t cremated and his ashes scattered in one of the many nightclubs or strip clubs where he performed.

Probably nothing pisses off Lenny more than the fact that he was jailed on an obscenity charge simply for having said “fuck, shit, and cocksucker”—when the only reason he said them was to make a point.  Obscenity is not the same as profanity, Lenny reminds us, and if anyone was turned on by hearing the word “motherfucker,” it’s that person who has the problem, and not the one who said it.

What else pisses Lenny off?  Dying broke.  (They had to take up a collection to bury him.) Having only ten people at his funeral—on a rainy day!  Organized religion.  (To think that religion is ridiculous is not insanity, Lenny tells us.  It’s common sense.)   Being persecuted for speech when people were dying in Vietnam. (“What happened to the First Amendment?  Weren’t there more dangerous guys out there than me?”)  The police. (“Those cops wouldn’t let me make a living.”) Politicians. The list goes on and on.

Lenny Bruce Is Back (And Boy Is He Pissed) fills us in on Lenny’s life: 
•His dishonorable discharge from the Navy for “homosexuality.” (It turns out his claim to be having impure thoughts about men was a ruse he perpetrated to get out early.)  
•The time he impersonated a priest to a) make money for a leper colony in British Guiana and b) make money for himself.  
•His love for his mother Sally Marr (his staunchest supporter), his tumultuous relationship with his stripper wife Honey Harlow, and his regrets at leaving his daughter Kitty fatherless at age eleven.

Lenny rants about Phil Spector and his obsession with guns, and about folks who don’t know the difference between a “hippy” and a “hipster” or between a “jerk” and a “schmuck.”  He rants about people who can’t see that gay marriage is good for the economy and about people too dumb to see that the Lone Ranger and Tonto were a couple and that Batman, Robin, and butler Alfred were in a three-way relationship. He rants about drugs, which he only took to exorcise his demons (dibbuk in Yiddish), and besides, they were prescribed by a doctor.  (“Those were the days when doctors really cared about their patients.”)

In actor Marmo’s talented hands, Lenny Bruce comes alive, not as a celebrity impersonation, but as a real live flesh-and-blood human being, so much so that one quickly forgets that this is a performance.  It’s almost as if the real Lenny were speaking to us from the Theatre 68 stage, making us laugh and making us think.

Director Guza makes varied use of all of Theatre 68’s stage, transformed by Danny Cistone’s set design into a graveyard limbo, beautifully lit by Matt Richter.  From a perch above the set, Carl Randall on saxophone opens the show with a blues “overture,” and ties scenes together on his sax. 

Following its successful April/May weekend run, Lenny Bruce Is Back (And Boy Is He Pissed) continues as a once-a-week Thursday offering with tickets currently on sale through June 24.  (Check www.lennybruceisback.com for likely extensions.)

Probably no one would be happier about the play’s (and Marmo’s) success than Lenny himself.

Theatre 68, 5419 Sunset Blvd , Suite D, Hollywood. Through June 24. Thursdays at 8:00.  Reservations: Reservations: 323 960-5068 www.theatre68.com

–Steven Stanley
June 3, 2010

Comments are closed.