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A CurtainUp Review
Lenny Bruce

In His Own Words

I am not a comedian. I am Lenny Bruce. --- Lenny Bruce
His truths were based on our most coveted lies . He left no room for rationalized bigotry or self-deception. He seduced his audience with a rhythmic and dynamic use of his own language, acting as the slow pull of a Band-Aid off denial. -- Bruce's daughter Kitty, in notes accompanying a commemorative boxed-set album.

Jason Fisher as Lenny Bruce
(Photo: Doug Kuntz)
Lenny Bruce
The real Lenny Bruce
Lenny Bruce, who forty years after his death from a drug overdose is still hailed as one of the most controversial and influential American stand-up comedians, would have loved the funky Zipper theater. But Bruce would be a lot less smitten with Joan Worth and Alan Sacks' concept for a show to bring back memories of his work to Brucephiles and at the same time introduce him to younger audiences to whom he's just a name.

According to the program notes, Jason Fisher, the star of Lenny Bruce, In His Own Words, is proud to be in a somewhat peacable relationship with the ghost of Bruce. Unfortunately that relationship is with a man who, at least in this reincarnation, comes off as a very tame ghos.

I'll admit that I'm not overly enthusiastic about the solo show trend, and tend to be wary of yet another addition to this proliferating genre. Granted that occasionally strong scripts and talented, charismatic performers like Jefferson Mays, Billy Crystal and Sarah Jones make a compelling enough case for the genre to disarm even solo skeptics like me. But there are all too many actors who dive into this increasingly crowded theatrical sea and land with a belly flop, their acting and material not strong enough to engage an audience single-handed.

Given Bruce's twenty-years of outrageous commentary and routines that often got him into trouble with the law plus the fact that the comedic style he originated is still being fine tuned by the likes of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, Lenny Bruce, In His Own Words sounded like one of those more promising solo ventures. Even though I'd never heard of Jason Fisher, the gravitas of his subject was enough to buoy my hopes for a stimulating trip down memory lane.

Alas, the script Fisher has been given to consummate his stage marriage to the iconic image of Lenny Bruce doesn't make much of a case for a new look at his innovations as a comedian and his long-standing battle with censorship. Though a hit in its previous permutation in Los Angeles, it's unlikely to be something that will provide Fisher with a steady gig for years to come. Worse yet, the piece does little to polish Bruce's legend. I can't remember when a program lasting just 5 minutes over an hour has seemed so interminably long and when I've been part of an audience as unresponsive to words intended to rouse them to peals of appreciative laughter,

In fairness to Worth and Sacks, the problem with this Lenny Bruce is not that they have not included material that typifies Bruce's mix of commentary and character routines, but that what once might have passed for Bruce's choicest material doesn't make for a still trenchant anthology. We have riffs on religion which include a Bruce-into-Oral Roberts transition. The stand-up schtick and character sketches wind up with some of the rants about his fracases with the law that did in fact dominate his final appearances. However, it all feels dated never seem like anything more than an attempt to stuff Bruce's twenty-year history into a sixty-minute summary. Asher too deserves praise for nailing those dark Lenny-like stares into the audience and Bruce's stop-and-start mannerisms, but he never makes us forget that he's a performer who imitates but never really embodies Bruce; nor is he able to recapture the rapport Bruce had with his audiences.

Perhaps the very success of Bruce's fight for language deemed criminally obscene and unacceptable contributes to the tameness of the Asher-as-Bruce ruminations on "the 10-letter word that begin with" the letter C." Such words have become more commonplace than "please" and " thank you" -- not just for comedians but for all writers. On stage, especially Off-Broadway, playwrights continue to test the limits and theater goers are much more likely to be shocked by Adam Rapp's Red Light Winter (to be reviewed after its opening later this month) and Ian Cohen's tragi-comedy about two foul-mouthed brothers, the more outrageous of whom is aptly named Lenny ( Lenny & Lou review (after official 2/02/06 opening)).

Perhaps the only way to appreciate why and how Lenny Bruce became a role model for comedians and free speech advocates is to listen to the man himself on one of the commemorative records made of some of his most famous performances, or watch the filmed version of the Julian Barry's play Lenny Bruce with Dustin Hoffman playing the role created on Broadway by Cliff Gorman All these and more are still available at Amazon.

Lenny Bruce Live at the Curran Theater in San Francisco
Carnegie Hall Concert ~ Lenny Bruce
The bio pic based on the Broadway play Lenny, starring Dustin Hoffman and directed by Bob Fosse
Written and directed by Joan Worth and Alan Sacks of Marvin Worth Productions
Starring Jason Fisher
Running time: 65 minutes, without intermission
Zipper Theatre 336 W. 37 St (212) 239-6200
From 1/30/06 to 2/25/06; opening 2/01/06
Mondays through Fridays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 8 and 10 p.m.
Tickets are $30 Monday through Thursday, and $40 on Fridays and Saturdays.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on January 31st performance
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©Copyright 2006, Elyse Sommer.
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