Ronnie Marmo’s Ecstasy and the Agony of Lenny Bruce

 

Ronnie Marmo

 

By Myra Chanin

 

If an actor wants to utter words that are truthful and accurate, he/she better write those words himself, which is exactly what Ronnie Marmo, a playwright and actor did with I’m Not A Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce and then snared the title and only role himself. Marmo’s portrait of Lenny Bruce is a depiction of a martyred philosopher who helped brew the hemlock he consumed to self-destruct. Marno and his director, THE Joe Mantegna, with significant credits and honors, including Tony and Joseph Jefferson Awards for his Richard Roma in David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross, have created a hip and funny as well as a very sad show.

I was an in-the-flesh fan of Lenny Bruce’s – the stand-up comic and social satirist whose career lasted about 10 years from the mid-1950’s to his death in 1966. I first saw him at The Red Hill, a Cherry Hill NJ jazz club made to order for him in every way. I also owned and played his LP’s for friends who, like me, found him funny and smart. By the time he had discarded his Catskill Mountain jokester public persona acceptable on TV variety shows, he was becoming an ultimately unwanted incisive commentator on the variations between public vs. private behavior. Instead of telling jokes, he riffed, gleefully improvising thoughts into conclusions for hip, appreciative audiences who really dug the hidden truths he brought out from under the emotional covers and rewarded him with the laughter he longed for and deserved. Even in this show, where Marmo focuses more on Lenny’s troubles than on his joys, the hip if somewhat older audience breaks into peals of acknowledging laughter because the shtick are true and honorable and still work.

 

One of the funniest bits Marno replays is Lenny’s understanding of male sexuality — that guys were different than females. They didn’t have to “like” a gal to want to shtupp her. Even a guy who’d barely survived a bus crash could still make a pass at the nurse in the ambulance speeding him to the ICU.

“How could you do that! Your foot hanging from your leg by a tendon!”

“I got horny. She looked hot in that white uniform.”

 

Marmo is the most Bruce-like of all the actors I’ve seen portray Lenny. What about Dustin Hoffman who was nominated for an Oscar for his interpretation? To use Lenny’s favorite Yiddish expression — Feh! Don’t know what it means? Look at your face in the mirror when you say it and you’ll know. The Tony Award-winning Cliff Gorman didn’t look or sound at all like Lenny either. Marmo not only looks and sounds like Lenny, he even moves like him. They both have black, polished, slicked back hair, the same twinkle in their eye, similar thin bodies slithering across the stage.

Marmo doesn’t dig extensively into Lenny’s bits and the laughter they received which were responsible for Lenny’s comparatively short-lived ecstasy. But Lenny’s riffing on morality, politics, patriotism, religion, law, race, drugs, and Jewishness can still be watched on YouTube. Marmo deals more with Lenny’s refusal to bow to the powers-that-be, usually Irish cops and judges, who punished him the same way they’ve always punished non-apologetic outsiders, i.e., Mohammad Ali, Jack Johnson and Mike Tyson, by stopping them from working at something at which they excelled.

 

The show is set on a stage with scarlet velvet drapes, dotted with little blue lights. A microphone stands between a Michael Thonet bentwood side chair on the right and a white toilet on the left on which the naked, dead Lenny awaits the arrival of his tormentors, the police, with a needle still stuck in his vein.

Marmo’s Lenny becomes the M.C in the wry story of his life. He stumbled into a life in comedy, after his ad-libs were greeted with laughter, and he died in agony, unable to use his voice, brain and perception to clear himself of the charges for obscenity that were trumped up against him and was unable to convince the judge to allow him to work. .

In pop culture, Bruce is regarded as a groundbreaker whose novel use of four-letter words mixed with jabs at society’s sacred cows paved the way for Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, George Carlin and others who spoke their minds. Fans say he was driven to drugs by ruthless prosecutors , more distressed by Bruce’s content than his off-color language. Like his contention that Jackie Kennedy, after JFK was shot, was not trying to get help but just trying to save her ass. Or what Jesus would say when he saw Puerto Ricans living in poverty while the Catholic Cardinals were swathed in opulence. It was hardly prudent to pick on the Kennedy family or the Holy Father.

I’m only sorry that Lenny Bruce didn’t live long enough to read the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on the abuse of young people’s bodies by some of those charged with saving their souls. It proved Bruce’s contention that despite being enraged at Bruce’s use of the vernacular phrase describing the act of fellatio, they were far from reluctant about actually performing it.

 

Photos: Doren Sorell Photography

 

At The Cutting Room, 44 East 32 St. 212-691-1900 Various times until 12/30  www.thecuttingroom.com

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