Every performing artist should know who Lenny Bruce was, but unfortunately too many don't. For the uninitiated, Bruce was a controversial stand-up comedian from the '50s and '60s who was actually arrested and spent time in jail because his material was so controversial. By modern standards it's ridiculous to think that someone could be thrown in jail for saying "cocksucker" on a stage at a comedy club or (GASP!) mocking organized religion, but at the time Bruce was deemed too profane to perform in numerous cities (including New York). Although Bruce's material is still hysterical and incisive today, it's actually rather tame by modern standards of profanity. But any modern comic who pushes the envelope owes his or her existence to Lenny Bruce.
The Last Days of Lenny Bruce is almost two plays in one. The first act is a surrealistic comedy where Lenny Bruce himself, back from the dead, informs the uninitiated in the audience about who he is and why they should care. Playwright Jonathan M. Goldberg uses stand-up comedy as a form of narration and does an excellent job of capturing Bruce's style and character. Carter Roy did a pretty good job of doppleganging Lenny Bruce, but it's the script that brings him back to life. He not only talks about his own life but also takes a few minutes to rant about the present (including relating a conversation with George Carlin, who was greatly inspired by Bruce). It was almost as though Bruce never died.
After a bunch of exposition (don't worry, it was so much fun no one noticed they were learning something), the second act starts and the play takes on a completely different style and tone. The second act is in the standard realistic dramatic format (with its fourth wall still intact). It's not funny, and it isn't supposed to be. After showing the audience just how irreverently funny Bruce was, Goldberg shows what happened to him after his numerous trials, and it wasn't pretty.
Carter Roy had a good supporting cast behind him. Memory Contento was appropriately hammy as Bruce's mother, and Howard Davidson, James Kennedy, and Joel Stigliano each played a swarm of characters. Gorgeous blonde Melanie Malia pranced around in a variety of sexy costumes, but was more than just eye candy. Malia's skimpy outfits were the director's way of reminding the audience that Lenny Bruce started out as a burlesque comic, and burlesque is really good clean fun (with lots of hot babes).
Director Mark Klimko also did the lighting and sound (with help from Goldberg on the sound). Klimko's sound frequently involved canned excerpts from Bruce's stand-up material and even threw in an homage to Benny Hill. Lighting was kept to its minimum, but before the show a ghostly image of Bruce was projected onto the curtains.
In a time when the First Amendment is in danger of disappearing, it's good that someone remembers one of its greatest (if lesser-known) defenders.
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Copyright 2003 Charles Battersby