Josh Flanders is an actor, writer and comedian in Chicago. He is a writer for Choice The Musical and half of the comedy duo Flanders. Josh is a contributor for Chicago Reader and Chicagoland Musical Theatre, a member of the American Theater Critics Association, and a graduate of the Second City Conservatory. He is co-owner of Flanders Consulting.
Photo: Ronnie Marmo as Lenny Bruce | Doren Sorell
by Josh Flanders
Now extended through Feb. 16, “I’m Not A Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce” directed by Joe Mantegna and written by and starring Ronnie Marmo, is a one-man journey through the life, humor, battles, and tragedies of the famed performer. Marmo, in a post-show Q&A, admits that Luke Kirby’s performance as Lenny Bruce on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has helped sell tickets and get audiences more interested in this groundbreaking comic and political satirist, which is fortunate, as there is much more to learn about his life in this show. Yes, he was groundbreaking, dirty, and hilarious, challenging norms and making brilliant observations about sex, religion, and human behavior. But he also struggled with addiction, love, and parenting, making him all too human and flawed, adding real tragedy to his untimely demise.
Marmo completely embodies Bruce, a persona he has inhabited now in two different stage productions. He offers a good deal of biography, as well as highlights from Bruce’s life and death, including some of his best stand up bits. Nearly 40% of what is seen onstage comes from personal stories with friends and family that cannot be found online, Marmo claims, including his own relationship with Kitty Bruce, Lenny’s daughter, who runs a nonprofit helping get addicts into treatment. (Both Kitty and Marmo are recovering addicts.) This intimacy with the people in Bruce’s life provides a great deal of insight into the nuances of his personality and motivations. Yet getting too close to one’s subject also has its hazards and some of his scenes come off as leaning into self-pity and regret for being a bad dad and addict.
Marmo hits all the big moments including Bruce’s appearance on the Steve Allen Show and many of the quotes he is known for. In several scenes, Marmo really connects with Bruce’s passion and intensity, keeping the audience enraptured. Moments that stand out include a particularly poignant defense of himself in court on obscenity charges, where he throttles the judge about freedom of speech, ending with the plea to “please don’t take away my words.”Another powerful and particularly charged bit involves a Life magazine photo of Jackie Kennedy immediately after JFK was shot, and whether she was trying to help, as the public narrative would have people believe, or fleeing to save herself, and what that false narrative says about expectations of women. He adds that if it were his daughter, he would want her to run and not stay. He adds, “people don’t stay,” he adds, exposing the hypocrisy he sees running through so much of American culture, as well as his own indictment of our inability to be there for each other.
Other parts of the show are more interesting than funny and some lack real impact, in part due to Mantegna’s structural choices, the order of scenes, and clunky transitions. The final scene with Marmo portraying the tragedy of Bruce’s death, which bookends the play, would have been enough, but clips of names and audio of recent comics who, we assume, owe their careers to his legacy, takes away from some of that impact.
Yet Bruce’s message is evergreen and in many ways more poignant today than ever. Marmo’s performance is engaging from beginning to end, and this show is very much worth experiencing.
“I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce” is now extended through Feb. 16, 2020, at the Royal George Cabaret Theatre (1641 N. Halsted)