The tragic, short life of comedian Lenny Bruce is well known. Perhaps some of his material is not. Today, as heard on the stage of the Colony, it is only — and this is a huge only — biting, irreverent, slyly perceptive and wildly funny. In the ‘50s and ‘60s his words and ideas were considered shocking, immoral, anti-religious, anti-Establishment and, above all, obscene. People who objected to his nightclub act could register their displeasure by walking out. But the police hounded him and arrested him; the courts prosecuted him and punished him. "Satire is tragedy plus time," Bruce said. But some of the subjects he skewered — Jackie Kennedy, Hitler, Nixon, The Lone Ranger — were too au courant for the public to accept what he was trying to do. Je used words not to shock, but to desensitize, saying, "It’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power." The ultimate obscenity took place after his death, when the police allowed photographers to take pictures of his naked body on the bathroom floor.
Michael David Wadler directs a compelling production of Lenny that moves from the surrealistic to the starkly real with stunning clarity and driving honesty. The surrealism extends from Wadler’s opening sound design presaging an ancient tribal ritual (with marvelous costumes by Don Woodruff) to a later courtroom scene which plays like a vaudeville act gone bizarrely out of sync (Kate Lindsay supplies the fantasy trial clothes). Gene Mazzanti’s dingy, sprawling nightclub setting becomes areas of other places and times under Wadler’s dramatic lighting.
Wayne Liebman is the spine, sinew and flesh of the play. He presents Lenny Bruce as cool, cocky, sometimes naive, outrageous, insistent, persistent, ultimately desperate, almost messianic in Bruce’s compulsive drive to speak the truth as Bruce saw it. Liebman’s transitions are seamless in a performance that commands attention. Jennifer Susan Lawson as Bruce’s wife Rusty ("a cross between the Virgin Mary and a $500 a night hooker," he called her) indeed has an angelic face and a sensuous body but doesn’t capture the torment or either the woman hooked on drugs or the imprisoned mother looking at snapshots of her daughter. Further performances should help her to define the difficult role.
The remainder of the cast, all in multiple roles, are excellent particularly Edward Ansara, who is fine as Sherman Hart, but whose various judges add immeasurably to the play. Madelyn Cates and Georgie Paul render particularly adroit performances indicative of perceptive choices — Cates, notably, as Sally Marr, Bruce’s mother, and Paul as a variety of sour women. Robert Budaska’s club owner and Theresa Bailey’s Chinese waitress are each one of many roles they play well. Others in the cast are Peter Morris, Craig Christiansen, Danny Roger, Bud Samiljan and Arnie Shamblin. Todd Nielsen supplies choreography and Sandra Kinder is assistant director.
The Colony’s Lenny is an
engrossing, almost mesmerizing production that, in the face of the so-called
Moral Majority and current book banning, is timely and should be seen.
Copyright 1982 Drama-Logue