In case turning back the clock to the stability and prosperity of the early 1960s seems an enticing alternative to today's sociopolitical turbulence, consider the fate of Lenny Bruce. The comic provocateur's taboo-busting, profanity-loaded monologues led to his blacklisting, arrest and imprisonment — so much for freedom of speech in that supposedly enlightened era.
In the premiere of "I Am Not a Comedian … I'm Lenny Bruce" at Theatre 68, actor Ronnie Marmo and director Joe Mantegna cut through historical haze to invoke Bruce's troubled, anarchic spirit and make a compelling case for his enduring relevance.
We first glimpse Marmo's Bruce, haggard and broken, at the time of his squalid death from a drug overdose at the age 40, having tragically realized his lifelong ambition to be "the hip Jew version of James Dean." Nevertheless, the self-destructive, compulsively truth-telling Bruce bristles with crusading fury — middle finger raised metaphorically (and often literally) against hypocrisy and censorship — as he launches into a meticulously researched retrospective of his life and career.
For the solo show's narrative segments, Marmo draws extensively from Bruce's recordings, published work and court transcripts, skillfully woven into a conversational monologue. The performance reflects the deep affinity for his subject that previously led to Marmo's selection to narrate the audiobook version of Bruce's serialized autobiography, "How to Talk Dirty and Influence People."
This perfectly inflected performance is expertly directed by actor Mantegna, who, through longtime collaboration with David Mamet, knows a thing or two about four-letter eloquence.
When Marmo picks up a mike to re-create excerpts from Bruce's routines, the result compares favorably with existing footage of the comic in action — from the expressive hand gestures ceaselessly punctuating every line to the freewheeling trains of thought that unspool like jazz riffs on racism, pornography, religion and other ripe targets for protest. Marmo's Bruce is equally unsparing in confronting his own failures as a husband ("through all of the free love, we ended up paying a big price") and father ("how many parents can pull off embarrassing their 7-year-old?").
Not just a comedian, Lenny Bruce was too much the pioneering outcast to get the recognition he deserved in his lifetime. Nevertheless, his unique brand of introspective commentary broke through the limitations of punchline-driven stand-up and paved the way for his successors, from Richard Pryor and George Carlin to Sarah Silverman and Louis C.K. This engaging and illuminating portrait allows subsequent generations to understand who Lenny Bruce was, and, more important, why he mattered.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘I Am Not a Comedian … I'm Lenny Bruce’
Where: Theatre 68, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; ends Nov. 25
Info: (323) 960.5068, theatre68.com
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
See all of our latest arts news and reviews at latimes.com/arts.