Lenny Bruce made obscenity into a fine art and it killed him. What is obscenity: Loose and vulgar talk about human genitalia, or kids starving in ghettos, humorous celebrations of sexual intercourse or men getting blown to pieces by grenades/ Obscenity is usually in the mouth of the listener.
Julian Barry's play, "Lenny", which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, is a curious play, but a dynamite shtick of theater. It raises issues, twists nerves and at times rages with scatological fury. It is neither for the prurient nor the prudish - but neither was Lenny Bruce. It also has a virtuosos performance of fevered energy and measured distinction by Cliff Gorman as Lenny. The first-night audience gave him a standing ovation such as is rarely heard in a theater, and he deserved every last, hoarse hurrah.
The play is about Lenny Bruce, a Jewish nightclub comedian, satirist, iconoclast, sourpuss, humorist and unexpected latter-day martyr. Lenny was abrasive and honest. He didn't just milk sacred cows, he flayed them alive. He spat dirty-mouthed insults at the church and the state, and he shocked, irritated and annoyed. He was the warning graffiti on the wall.
The play is very largely composed of Lenny Bruce's own nightclub routines, and goes from his beginnings in 1951 to his solitary bathroom death from a drug overdose in 1966. We see his marriage, his court cases and, at times, his fantasies. We hear his mocking attacks on the Establishment, his scorn for the misuse of words, his hatred of cant and hypocrisy.
We don't see much of his drug-taking or drinking. We don't see the body wasting, the talent eroding, the slack jaw, the forgotten lines, the lost control. I didn't much admire Bruce's nightclub act. I wasn't then ready for it; many people weren't. And I didn't then understand the moral fervor behind it. The two or three times I saw him, pretty much toward the end of his career, he seemed like an incompetent, foul-mouthed loudmouth. But then, I never saw the real Lenny Bruce.
And of course this play doesn't show us the real Lenny Bruce either; it takes Lenny as a symbol of free speech and political heterodoxy. I think it whitewashes aspects of his character - I guess after what happened in his lifetime he may deserve it - but does present his uncompromising honesty and his all-American insurgency. It also indicates, I believe with justice, that his reckoning with society was prompted as much by his political irreverence and candor as his continual stream of obscenity.
It also shows the fun of Bruce. When I saw Bruce, white and ferret-faced caught in a spotlight of notoriety and trying to face the horrors, the guy wasn't very funny. But this play, like his books, sayings and records, puts it straight. Apart from the obvious trickle of obscenity, which you can find loathsome, unnoticeable or liberating according to yourself, there was here a bitter Swiftian sense of the ridiculous and the courage of a David facing a Goliath with just a slingshot of shocking obscenity to defend himself with.
Tom O'Horgan has taken the play, with its multiplicity of nightclub scenes, and given it a phantasmagoric style. He has made it into an American nightmare - full of crazy judges, tribal chieftains, lepers, jazz musicians, irreverent priests, naked prophets and the whole pressure-cooked madness of the neurotic was of life.
In part the style comes from Mr. O'Horgan's staging of "Tom Paine" and to a lesser extent "Hair", but it is more innovative than either in its use of parody and blockbusting theatrical trickery. Here he is most imaginatively helped by the giant scenery of Robin Wagner, who provides the play with a truly Wagnerian sense of gods and twilight.
Where Mr. O'Horgan has been very successful is in capturing the pace and sleaziness of show business, and little nightclubs, and bands that laugh and customers that don't. There are some neatly turned performances here. Joe Silver turning up everywhere in a number of roles, and each one a joy, and Jane House as Rusty, Lenny's stripper wife, is both convincingly attractive and cool. But of course Lenny is "Lenny" and Lenny is Cliff Gorman.
Mr. Gorman doesn't look much like Bruce, and he doesn't even sound much like Bruce. But he does have a fantastic gift for mimicry, an absolutely driven style that hammers and hammers home to the audience, relentless, mocking and acerbic. Mr. Gorman is on that stage for hours and hours and hours, facing the audience, belting the material, and also revealing the scalding anger of a man who didn't want to be misunderstood. This is a performance that cannot fail to make a major star out of Mr. Gorman - the man is a consummate actor.
Irony, irony all is irony. What Bruce got busted for in private nightclubs is here being displayed in Broadway theater just five years after his death. And a man who died penniless and alone will probably make plenty of bread for the ones who come after. Perhaps he would have seen the joke.
So there is "Lenny", dirty, fierce and shook-up. Many people will be offended by "Lenny" and I would humbly suggest that they don't go to see it. But always remember, sticks and stones may break your bones, but hard words never hurt you. Once in a while a few hard words can be refreshing. I found "Lenny" sad, funny and yes, refreshing. The last laugh is with Mr. Bruce.
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