Ronnie Marmo = Lenny Bruce

Ronnie Marmo / Lenny Bruce

 

By Alix Cohen

 

Zero Mostel put an indelible stamp on Tevye (Fiddler on The Roof), Yul Brynner on the King of Siam (The King and I); Jason Robards was perhaps our best interpreter of Eugene O’Neill. Two of these characters are fictional, one fictionalized. None of the performers wrote the words they spoke.

When an actor becomes the playwright, exploring and sculpting story of a real person, there’s opportunity for another kind of lasting impression. Hal Holbrook so invested in his subject, he became Mark Twain to generations of theater-goers. (Mark Twain Tonight.) Ronnie Marmo steps into the skin of Lenny Bruce.

“I’m not a comedian and I’m not sick. The world is sick and I’m the doctor. I’m a surgeon with a scalpel for false values. “ Lenny Bruce

In 2010, Sam Bobrick and Julie Stein brought Marmo the solo piece Lenny’s Back…and boy is he pissed . Only peripherally aware of Bruce, the actor associated him with drug abuse, vulgarity in the name of free speech and legal issues. He knew what the general public knew. It was a good script.

 

Rehearsal Photos

 

Playing the character, he grew increasingly intrigued, not the least because Marmo admits to having himself been a young addict. Though a long harbored dream, he became an actor only after getting clean. The text, he tells me with no intent to criticize, was “storytelling.” Who WAS this man beyond his iconic public image?

As earnest research began on the counterculture legend, a new theater piece formed in his mind, one in which the heart and guts of a complex personality might be exposed. Marmo made a commitment to pursue his own singular vision, I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce. It was important to him that an audience not just watch Bruce but experience him in real time. He’d have to secure the rights to original material that comprised Bruce’s shows.

A five year courtship of the satirist’s understandably wary daughter, Kitty ensued. (Kismet arranged a mutual friend) The playwright took it upon himself to fly from LA to Pennsylvania so that she could get a sense of him face to face. Having spoken with the man, I can only concur with the wisdom of the trip.

Marmo is smart, articulate, insightful, compassionate “we all need forgiveness” and ardent about Lenny Bruce. He loves the man. Twenty years into a career as a working actor and founder of a now bi-coastal theatre company, Theater 68, he’d research his subject, write, and periodically check in with Kitty Bruce between acting jobs. “It was a very gentle process.” In time, she grew trusting enough to share things no one else knew.

Ronnie Marmo

 

The play shows Lenny Bruce ne Schneider as son, suitor, husband, and father with unexpectedly traditional values in addition to the x-rated, drug abusing comedian who arguably became a martyr to free speech. Balance was paramount. Perhaps that’s why Kitty leant her support. The portrait finds him besottedly describing wife Honey Harlow as well as railing in court and crumpled on the floor of a jail cell. 

Like Mark Twain, Bruce was a student of human nature. Instead of mining the warm foibles of his fellow man, however, he shone a spotlight on what he perceived as sanctimony, bigotry, and deceit. (Imagine what his stand-up might be like today.) Both artists were humorists, though the comic’s iconoclastic approach was often seriously dark. 

I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce contains verbatim sections of actual shows. Marmo delivers this part of the play in the jazz riff style of its originator. Hip vernacular, Yiddish, and the Long Island accent sound natural.

To be present as he occupies Bruce in full to-the-barricade mode is, to say the least, unnerving. From the actor’s point of view “the N word” was particularly difficult. As inured as most have become to coarse vernacular, wincing is reflexive…which is, of course, the point. Plumbing etymology and pointing out social hypocrisy were signatures.

Intimate performance settings assure that politics, religion, sex and social mores are skewered in your face. Probing observations and salacious language might emerge as casually as talk of the weather or in full frontal attack. Though the artist was fast on his feet in response to hecklers (as is Marmo) and could spontaneously include something that just happened, he was, in fact, meticulous. The loosey goosey image is an illusion.

 

Ronnie Marmo

 

“If God made the body, and the body is dirty, then the fault lies with the manufacturer.” Lenny Bruce

I ask about Bruce’s well publicized anger. In Marmo’s opinion, he was “frustrated.” Despite being misunderstood, defamed, and repeatedly arrested (sometimes jailed) for alleged obscenity, the comic believed in our justice system to his untimely end from an apparent overdose at the age of 40.

When it came time to secure a Director, the playwright immediately thought of Joe Mantegna with whom he had worked as a fellow performer. “I wrote a film called West of Brooklyn about 15 years ago, and sent a long letter expressing my desire for him to be in it… A few days later he called me, said he read the script, and would like to have lunch. We met and he agreed to do the film. Joe’s been a dear pal and mentor ever since.”

Mantegna also has great regard for Bruce. The Director “fell somewhere between offering opinions and helping develop the piece. I took the script as far as I thought I could take it. Then, the first few weeks of rehearsal, Joe helped me move some things around and take the script the last ten yards.” Consistently involved even from the west coast, Mantegna speaks with and watches Marmo almost daily. The symbiotic artists are committed to constant honing of the piece.

 

Joe Mantegna / Ronnie Marmo

 

“Lenny Bruce was a truth teller – the exact opposite of where our country is right now.” Ronnie Marmo

I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce successfully ran 15 months in Los Angeles before being revived at New York’s Cutting Room last fall. Marmo prefers alternative venues. This incarnation adds an appropriate opening act in the person of actress and popular burlesque artist Pearls Daily (Brianna Hurley.)

A portion of show proceeds will go to the Lenny Bruce Memorial Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit charity which provides the funds for those who have no insurance or enough money to get treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. For more information please go to www.lennybruce.org. All contributions are tax deductible.

 

Production Photos by Doren Sorell Photography

Photo of Lenny Bruce- Public Domain

I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce

Written by and starring Ronnie Marmo

Directed by Joe Mantegna

The Box  189 Chrystie Street   www.lennybruceonstage.com

Through April 30, 2019

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