Slurring Towards Bethlehem: Ronnie Marmo Brings Lenny Bruce’s Foul-Mouthed Fury to Life

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By Brian Marks

If there’s one thing that Ronnie Marmo doesn’t do in his one-man show, I’m Not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce, it’s hold back. Early in the performance he launches into one of Bruce’s most famous (and controversial) bits, one that’s nearly as shocking now as it would have been in the 1950s thanks to his liberal peppering of racial slurs. But the tirade is actually an anti-racist sentiment, one that challenges the audience to look beyond the words to its deeper meaning.

This isn’t Marmo’s first encounter with Lenny Bruce — he played the comedian years ago in another one-man production, Lenny Bruce is Back — but I’m Not a Comedian digs deeper into Bruce’s work and personal life, with significant passages taken directly from his stand-up material. The story reaches all the way from his childhood as the son of an entertainer, through his various legal troubles over the perceived indecency of his act, to his death in 1966 from an overdose at age 40. Bruce died in the midst of an appeal on an obscenity conviction.

I speak with Marmo, the founder and Artistic Director of Theatre 68, shortly after a matinee performance.  He sticks around to discuss the performance with a group of audience members, some of whom remember Bruce’s work fondly, whereas others weren’t even born until decades after his death. Marmo’s surprisingly chipper, not what I expect after performing a grueling 80-minute monologue. He nurses an oversized mug of tea while we talk.

@THISSTAGE: This run has been extended multiple times, now to May 13.

Marmo: We opened in June — [clarifies with the box office staff] — it was a six-week run.

@THISSTAGE: What has it been like to see the theater filled up for that long?

Marmo: As an actor, it’s a huge blessing. It’s hard to get an audience. And there are nights that we get a handful. It’s such a blessing when they come out and I go, “I don’t know anybody in this audience, and it’s packed.” And it’s been happening a lot. So not only am I happy as an actor, but for Lenny’s sake. We’re education people about how important Lenny was. I love that.

Ronnie Marmo as Lenny Bruce. (Photo by Doren Sorell Photography.)

@THISSTAGE: It must be an emotionally taxing performance, to go from the highs at the beginning to the low lows at the end. What’s it like to do that so much longer than you planned?

Marmo: It’s like 80 minutes of therapy every night, because I basically run the gamut of every emotion. And honestly, every night before I come out on stage I think, “There’s no way I can do this again.” And then when I get that first laugh I go, “All right, here we go!” And tonight I didn’t get a laugh, I couldn’t believe it. I go, “Oh no, it’s gonna be one of these audiences.” And they probably were the quietest audience I’ve had yet, and they gave me a standing ovation. This play is such a weird play that you really can’t control how people take it. Sometimes I’m like, “God, they hate it,” and then they leap to their feet.

@THISSTAGE: I don’t think everybody is always sure what they’re supposed to laugh at, or if they’re allowed to laugh at it.

Marmo: Especially with Lenny’s material, I agree.

@THISSTAGE: What are your plans for the show in New York?

Marmo: Well we really want to open in New York in the fall, because that’s the hot season to open there. We’re trying to find the perfect venue. I looked at about twenty theaters last week, but I also found a club that I love. We started thinking it might work in a club. There’s a wonderful club called The Cutting Room… [On March 25] I’m going to do a one-night performance to see if it works. Then the hope is to run six performances a week (I just don’t know if I have it in me to do eight). I have a feeling the audience will, dare I say, even appreciate it more there.

@THISSTAGE: I think Joe Mantegna, the director, is an interesting choice. In a lot of his roles, especially the Mamet plays, he’s very aggressive, but he can also be quite moving in other roles. Lenny’s like that: when he’s on stage he’s very in-your-face, but when he’s talking about his wife or daughter it’s totally different. How did you two connect?

Marmo: Joe’s been my mentor for fifteen years. When I wrote the play, I just felt like everything you said is correct — I knew he should be the guy to guide the process. He’s a wonderful actor but he’s also a wonderful director. And he just had the perfect temperament, especially for the playwright and the actor. This wouldn’t have worked if I didn’t respect the hell out of my director. Because I wrote it too, and there were two or three things in the process that I went like, “Joe, I’m gonna sound like a total brat now, but please let me keep that.” But because I love him, only two or three things. The whole process was so easy, so graceful. It was just wonderful.

Ronnie Marmo and director Joe Mantegna. (Photo by Doren Sorell Photography.)

@THISSTAGE: When you were first learning about Lenny Bruce, what was it that first attracted you to him?

Marmo: The first thing I became attracted to was the personal stuff. He and I have so many things in common. I fought for the custody of my child — and won — at the same age that he did. My daughter was the same age. I had my own battles as a teenager with addiction — long gone now, thank God. There are just so many parallels in my life and Lenny’s life.

@THISSTAGE: I thought it was striking how early in the play you start with that n-word bit. I know that would have been shocking at the time, but now we’re coming back to a point where that can be shocking again.

Marmo: I think it’s more shocking today that it was then. Every person of color who has seen it has laughed, or afterward said, “I love you, I love Lenny, he was sticking up for me!” One girl, one eighteen-year-old young black girl walked out on the bit. And I’m sure a lot of people walked out on Lenny. And I felt so bad for her, because when I ask my friends of color they say, “If you’re upset, you’re not listening. Lenny was trying to make change, and he was protecting us.” But there are nights when I see six, seven African American people in the audience, and they’re sitting front row center, and I go “Shit, this is interesting.” But it fuels me, because I want to be right where Lenny was. But I think it’s more sensitive today. We’re way more politically correct.

@THISSTAGE: What kind of contact have you had with Bruce’s daughter? How has she shaped your conception of Lenny and the role?

Marmo: Kitty Bruce? We talk 50 times a day. She has given me lots of information. In my play there are probably a dozen things that no one has ever heard before, that come directly from his daughter. So you won’t find some of that stuff online. But I love her so much that I feel such an obligation to make Kitty proud and to represent her dad. She says she loves what I do and has sent many people here. So my responsibility to her is great, and I feel it, and every time I go onstage I know that that’s part of the deal. I’m not schmucking it up like some indulgent actor. I have a responsibility to her.

@THISSTAGE: You’ve played Lenny before in Lenny Bruce is Back. How has your approach changed since those days?

Marmo: The difference between that show and this is that I’m actually doing his material, and that show didn’t. I told a lot of stories, but in this one I’m doing the n-word bit. Just doing his material, I feel like I represent him way more than with cute storytelling. As a director, I usually say, “Let the playwright do the work for you. Get out of the way. Don’t try to make something more than it is. The words are there, they’ll help you.” It’s never been more true than it is here. Even though I happen to be the playwright, the words are the words, and they fuel me. I don’t need to do much more than that.

@THISSTAGE: Did Lenny [the Bob Fosse film] with Dustin Hoffman have any influence on your performance?

Growing up I loved it, but now that I’ve learned about Lenny I think they got it all wrong. And so do many other people I know who were close to Lenny. And Dustin Hoffman’s one of our great actors — I loved the film growing up, I saw it 50 times. But I’m not sure that was the perfect choice for Lenny or that they dug deep into who he was. It was very showy, very picturesque, as opposed to getting to the heart of it.

@THISSTAGE: Where do you think this role ranks in your career?

Marmo: I’m very fortunate, because I’ve done a lot of great roles in my life, but these kinds of things don’t come around often. I’m very clear that this is a big fat gift, and I happened to create the gift for myself, but you hope to get another one like this. But you might not. It just feels like it’s happening — I don’t want to say “effortlessly,” but there aren’t a lot of road blocks. People ask what it’s like and I say, “It’s the hardest and the easiest thing I’ve ever done.” It’s the hardest thing because — well, you saw the play. What’s easy about it is that all I have to do is completely give myself over and it’s effortless, even though it’s hard. As Joe Mantegna said, “This is the one they mention in your obituary. You did a lot of great work and you’ll do a lot more. But with this one they go: ‘And he played Lenny Bruce.’” And I feel that way. It’s hard to stop doing it! I think about the future — what if I finish today? What do I do, grab some play off the shelf? I don’t see that happening.

Ronnie Marmo as Lenny Bruce. (Photo by Doren Sorell Photography.)

 

I’m Not a Comedian … I’m Lenny Bruce runs through May 13 at Theatre 68, 5112 Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood. Performances are Wednesdays, March 14 at 9 p.m. and March 28 at 8 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. starting April 6, Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, click here

Check out the review in Stage Raw

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Brian Marks

Brian Marks

Brian is an L.A.-based arts writer who hails from Indiana. In addition to theater, he regularly covers film, television, and music. His criticism and reporting have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice, and LA Weekly. Find him on Twitter @BrianMarks356.