In the painfully honest spirit of Lenny Bruce, let’s begin with a couple of blunt observations. The first is that the very issue Bruce fought and died for—free speech and the right to say anything—has devolved in recent years into a gleeful incivility in which haters, trolls, and fools feel they can say anything, hurt anybody, and then hide behind the First Amendment. Bruce cursed a lot onstage, as Ronnie Marmo makes clear in his well-written, well-performed one-man show, I’m Not a Comedian . . . I’m Lenny Bruce, directed by Chicago theater legend Joe Mantegna. But Marmo also makes clear that Bruce had a heart—and a message that was the very antithesis of the one communicated in poison-filled tweets and gleeful bad-boy rants. The second is that Bruce’s comedy is very time bound, and much of his humor is more interesting as historical artifact than laugh-out-loud funny.
Still, there are worse things for a solo show to be than interesting. And Marmo’s 90-minute review of Bruce’s life and work keeps our attention from start to finish. Marmo has Bruce’s delivery—every pause and gesture—down cold. Even more impressive is how well Marmo succeeds in winning our sympathy. Bruce’s last years, encompassing myriad battles with authorities (including a famous trial for obscenity) and drug addiction, though the stuff of comedy legend, must have been a living hell. But Marmo also leaves us with the undeniable feeling that Bruce was a deeply flawed person, if clearly one of the best comic minds of his generation: a bad dad, a lousy lover, and a genius who may have needlessly squandered it all looking for a fix. v