Off-Broadway Review: “I’m Not A Comedian . . . I’m Lenny Bruce”

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Joseph Verlezza

  • Associate New York Critic

“And there it was. My first laugh. It’s like that flash I’ve heard morphine addicts describe. A warm sensual blanket that comes after a cold, sick rejection. I was hooked.” – Lenny Bruce (from “I’m Not A Comedian . . . I’m Lenny Bruce”)

The first image after the lights come up on stage is a slumped over, motionless, naked man sitting on a toilet. What follows is a silence that fills the room and becomes a force that provokes processing this scene. There might be the assumption that this is not a comedy. That would be a good guess, since the subject matter of “I’m Not a Comedian . . . I’m Lenny Bruce,” currently enjoying a successful run at The Cutting Room, is the tragic life of the outrageous, groundbreaking comedian. Yes, there are snippets from his more familiar routines to provide a glimpse into what was considered obscene during his heyday in the turbulent decade of the 1960s. His act complimented a society filled with protests and marches, supporting civil rights and denouncing war, proving Lenny Bruce was a performer that took to the stage intentionally to become a fierce advocate for free speech. He was arrested several times and charged with public obscenity for the shocking language he used in his routines that scoffed race, religion, sex, and politics. This one-man show is testament that his stand-up comedy was more abrasive than funny and reinforces the power of words. Mr. Bruce exposed the hypocrisy of humanity in such an unconventional style that his audience was shocked and humored at the same time.

Playwright and actor Ronnie Marmo bears a slight resemblance to his real-life character, but that is not what captures the essence of the iconic bad-mouthed comedian. Mr. Marmo deftly provides an authenticity to the cadence, posture, and mannerisms of the comic, but what suspends the audience in disbelief is his ability to inhabit the soul of Lenny Bruce immersed in a crusade. The disintegration of this antagonist of morality begins after several arrests, his divorce from the love of his life, stripper Honey Harlow, and his addiction to heroin which eventually killed him from an overdose in 1966. During his downward spiral, Mr. Bruce begins to unravel while appearing in court, when the judge denies him the opportunity to perform his routine in order to prove that his obscene words and actions were taken out of context and not libelous. Mr. Marmo gives an honest performance saturated with a sensitive empathy that reveals the humanity of the comic, which during his short career, was disguised by his controversial and shocking public persona.

Director Joe Mantegna at times uses a heavy hand to extract the emotional content of the piece but fits the pieces of this puzzling life together in a clear and comprehensive manner. As playwright, Mr. Marmo is less successful, not delving deep enough into what drove the comedian to embrace the campaign for free speech. His emotionally charged personal life is evident, what’s missing is the exploration of his acute intellect and shrewd observation. Regardless, this is a show that will please an audience, from avid fans who are familiar with the material, to a new generation who will be introduced to the precursor of some of the greatest comics of their time.

The end of the show brings the audience back to the opening scene. A slumped, motionless, naked man sitting on a toilet. Only this time you understand what led to this disturbing vignette, and when the silence once again permeates the room and coerces you to process, there is a sadness that fills the air when realizing that this brave pioneer died too young.                                                              



The creative team for “I’m Not A Comedian . . . I’m Lenny Bruce” includes Matt Richter (set and lighting design), Lauren Winnenberg (costume design), and Hope Bello LaRoux (sound design). Kathryn Loggins serves as production stage manager.

“I’m Not A Comedian . . . I’m Lenny Bruce” runs at the Cutting Room (44 East 32nd Street) through Friday January 25, 2019).  For more information and to purchase tickets, ranging in price from $50.00-$125.00, please visit Running time is 90 minutes without intermission, explores mature themes and includes strong language and nudity.

Photo: Ronnie Marmo as Lenny Bruce at the Cutting Room. Credit: Doren Sorell Photography.