Review: Lenny Bruce Lives Again in I’m Not a Comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce at the Biograph Theater

Cancel culture started with Lenny Bruce. His mother, standup comic and entertainer Sally Marr, encouraged him to emcee his first show in 1947 where he found his calling. Bruce practically invented the comedic stream-of-consciousness political and social commentary art form and paid dearly for his ground-breaking. Ronnie Marmo wrote and stars in this bittersweet 90-minute one-hander called I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce, in a limited run at the Biograph Theater through April 12.

Chicago-born Tony Award-winning (and Fat Tony-playing) actor Joe Mantegna directs (and recorded the pre-show announcement for) this slice-of-life play. The creative team intersperses snippets from Bruce’s real-life monologues in front of a shiny, old-fashioned ribbon microphone with scenes of Bruce narrating his fraught life. In addition to his beloved mother, the two other loves of Bruce’s life are revealed: his red-headed stripper wife Honey and his beloved daughter Kitty. He also loved heroin, which dramatically impacted those human affections.

Ronnie Marmo as Lenny Bruce. Photo by Doren Sorell.

Yet, amid the self-loathing drama of a comedian’s psyche, Bruce’s ability to punch up against puritanism and racism with humor and depth was so new and transcendent that he drew attention. First, from enthusiastic New York area fans, and then from law enforcement around the country, who would arrest and jail him for obscenity. Bits that frustrated and enraged those cops are shared in the show, including his famous dissection of a sex act referred to as his “rooster lollipop” monologue. As the show’s scribe, Marmo knows the text well, yet also occasionally interacts with the audience as Bruce did, especially in moments like this. “Take your time on that one,” he sometimes notes after a deep societal observation or subtle sexual joke.

Lenny Bruce's mugshot for obscenity charges circa 1964. Photo courtesy cbldf.org.

Marmo proffers a genial and melancholy Bruce as a necessary history lesson about how we’ve circled back to this societal decision between the censorship of free speech versus hate speech. He inhabits Bruce, perambulates the sparse stage and chats with viewers like a living history presentation at colonial Williamsburg, but this time with a Beat generation beat. The battle for vigorous, humorous social commentary didn’t die with Bruce in 1966; the flames are fanned again today with the encroachment of Christian nationalism and the threat of theocracy. “People do standup when they’re making a stand,” says Marmo as Bruce. And Bruce didn’t call his act an act, it’s “just life.”

I'm Not a Comedian... I'm Lenny Bruce runs at the Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., on Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30pm, on March 21, 22, 28, 29, April 11 and 12. Tickets are $69-79. The play is running in repertory with Marmo's production of Bill W. and Dr.Bob, the story of the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.