Content warning: this review contains mention of substance abuse.
The stage lights in the Greenwin Theatre rise to reveal a grisly sight: a man, slumped naked on a toilet, unmoving. It’s Lenny Bruce, the controversial comedian, frozen in a tableau depicting his death.
An aptly startling opening for a play about a startling man. I’m Not A Comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce had its Canadian premiere at Meridian Arts Centre courtesy of Teatron Toronto Jewish Theatre. The 90-minute solo performance show written by and starring Ronnie Marmo (General Hospital) chronicles the trials and tribulations of a comedian whose life was anything but a joke.
I viewed the gripping opening scene from a small monitor in the hallway next to the theatre after a decidedly unfunny (but entirely unsurprising) incident involving a series of mechanical issues on the TTC. After being carefully snuck into the theatre through an intricate maze of backstage corridors and mysterious staircases, I discovered that the show about one of the most influential comedians of the twentieth century was similarly… not a comedy.
Rather, the play explores some of the darkest moments in the performer’s life. I’m Not A Comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce focuses on the tragic circumstances surrounding Bruce’s contentious career and his torrid relationships with three women: his mother, Sally Marr; his one-time wife, Honey Harlow; and his daughter, Kitty Bruce.
From his increasingly toxic relationship with drugs to his long history of trials and arrests, the play doesn’t hold back any punches in its portrayal of Bruce. With crisp direction from Joe Mantegna (aka Special Agent David Rossi for Criminal Minds fans), Marmo whips around the stage, alternating between narrating Bruce’s life story, re-enacting court cases, and sliding smoothly into bits of the comedian’s act. The piece is carefully curated, with every quote, every joke leading the piece back to where it began with Bruce’s fatal 1966 morphine overdose.
It’s a more downbeat approach to the comedian’s life than other recent depictions of Bruce’s career and impact — namely in The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, where Bruce is a charming mentor-slash-muse (brought to life by Canadian actor Luke Kirby). This version of Bruce is sharp as a knife, plunging headfirst into some of the comic’s more obscene bits, highlighting his hard-fought battle over obscenity laws and free speech, and making his first Canadian audience delightfully uncomfortable.
Marmo has honed his portrayal of Bruce over the past six years, and it shows. He perfectly captures the comedian’s hep-cat persona, and soft, almost lilting, voice. Every gesture is hauntingly accurate: fans of Bruce will instantly recognize the comedian’s tense, almost nervous movements, and Marmo takes it a step further, creating his own version of Bruce to suit the dark, unflinching tone of the story.
He’s particularly keen when doing crowd work, asking increasingly intrusive and hilarious questions to a blushing Canadian crowd. It’s in these moments of levity and the embrace of Bruce’s irreverent comedy that the piece really comes to life, with Marmo steadily guiding the blade.
Marmo’s powerful performance manages to keep the play pushing forward, but just. At times, the tragic tone pulls down the energy, and the rapid shifts from courtrooms to stand-up bits and narration result in a number of jokes going over the opening night audience’s head. Some of the transitions were choppy, with uneven voiceover clips and jarring lighting transitions accompanying a repetitive, sulky saxophone solo from scene to scene. It all felt a little gauche… but that somehow felt appropriate to the subject of the work.
I’m Not A Comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce is an imperfect portrait of a man who was as far from perfect as one could be. But it’s a love letter to a complicated, passionate man whose impact on comedy cannot be understated. If you’re a fan of Bruce, or are only recently beginning to discover his work, this show might be just for you, diving beneath the jokes and the juries to reveal a man who wasn’t just a comedian… he was Lenny Bruce.
I’m Not A Comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce runs at Meridian Arts Centre through June 25. Tickets are available here.
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