Monday, December 30, 2019

Rather Fairly Foul: Ronnie Marmo Provides a Fine Glimpse in 'I'm Not a Comedian...I'm Lenny Bruce' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

I'm Not a Comedian ... I'm Lenny Bruce
written and starring Ronnie Marmo
directed by Joe Mantegna
Royal George Theatre
Thru Feb. 16

This review--of a fine one-man show about controversial comedian Lenny Bruce--is the last one I'll write this decade.

So it's somewhat apt that it presents--once again, not initially--the trickiest conundrum I've had in writing a thousand or so reviews of theatrical performances, rock concerts and assorted other shows.

The "trickiest" conundrum, not the "thorniest," for the latter has been how to delicately and deferentially frame sub-par critiques of shows I was invited to attend and review, particularly when I requested the invitation.

Fortunately, it hasn't happened often, and I've taken the tack of just being honest: that I admired the efforts that went into the production, but it didn't connect with me.

That is not the case here.

I very much enjoyed I'm Not a Comedian...I'm Lenny Bruce, a 90-minute monologue written and performed quite well by Ronnie Marmo under the direction of Chicago stage legend and Mamet film favorite turned TV star, Joe Mantegna (the piece has also had runs in New York and Los Angeles).

If I was just a guy who went to see the show with a friend--as I did--I would easily say that it was "really good" and that it furthered my understanding and appreciation of Lenny Bruce.

My conundrum is whether it merits @@@@ or @@@@1/2 (out of 5), which over the past decade of regularly writing reviews has been the trickiest delineation to make.

A @@@@@ show is absolutely phenomenal; one that I can effusively praise and recommend to just about anyone.

@@@1/2 or @@@ means I wasn't as engaged or enthralled as I would've liked, though the work was more good than not, even if only nominally.

But both @@@@1/2 and @@@@ connote a show I was very much glad to have seen, and--understanding that different folks have different tastes--would gladly recommend, but not insist others see to quite the degree of a @@@@@ performance. (Not that my insistence likely sways all that many.)

In either case, there was something not quite perfect--to me--often in a rather intangible way. But it was far more good than not.

In I'm Not a Comedian, Marmo is excellent as Bruce, sometimes delivering comic routines, sometimes giving biographical insights.

But I wished there were a few more bits and I would've valued some more knowledge.

Lenny Bruce died--as this show reminds--naked in a bathroom, in August 1966, so before I was born.

Over the years, I've heard him heralded as a sharp-witted though foul-mouthed comedian--not that obscenity bothers me--who clearly influenced the likes of Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Howard Stern.

I've seen the 1974 biopic, Lenny, starring Dustin Hoffman, and an acclaimed 1998 documentary, noted his being name-dropped by R.E.M.--in "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine"--embodied on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, ranked as the #3 comedian of all-time by Rolling Stone (behind Pryor and Carlin) and otherwise celebrated.

I've listened to clips of his on YouTube and at various points may have better recollected some of his material, but heading to the Royal George what I really didn't know was this:

Was Lenny Bruce hilarious or just daringly incisive?

Marmo pretty clearly shows that he was the latter, that Bruce's "blue" material often pushed the envelope to make audiences think about things society should've been uncomfortable with: racism, sexism, homophobia, religious dogmatism & hypocrisy, etc.

And certainly, much of what Marmo delivered as Bruce--from a bit about Christ & Moses to a dissection of the phrase "to come"--was funny. 

But as conveyed by Bruce (via Marmo) while he was defending himself against obscenity charges, he didn't really "have an act," he just talked about his life, "telling the truth."

So I somewhat perceive that, as Lenny became more and more harassed by police--which many ascribe to leading directly to his OD death at 40--his performances were all the more about defense and diatribes.

And for all that is good about I'm Not a Comedian ... I'm Lenny Bruce--and much of it is terrific--it left me wondering what seeing a performance by its namesake would have been like, say in 1957 and then in 1964.

I'm also left pondering if I should consider him a counter-culture martyr--soon after his death, American youth would, for the first time in history, stand up to the government and essentially say "Fuck your war"--or really just more of a coincidental footnote.

I guess I wanted to learn just that much more about Lenny Bruce than what Marmo and his deft script told me.

But doing enough to make me think about it seems to be worth 1/2@.

And heck, it is my last review of the decade.

Note: This review comes after a barrage of "Best of" lists covering both the decade and 2019. I'm Not a Comedian...I'm Lenny Bruce merits an Honorable Mention on The Best of 2019: The Best Plays I Saw as well as on The Best of the Decade 2010-19: My Favorite Solo Theatrical Performances.

1 comment:

Hemingway1955 said...

Lenny Bruce was before my time....I'm really sorry I didn't get to see him. Apparently he was a real artist in that he created a whole new form of comedy. Nice review and explanation too. A fitting way to end the new year....and decade.