by Lynn on June 22, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person, at the Meridian Arts Centre, Greenwin Theatre Toronto, Ont., produced by Teatron, Toronto Jewish Theatre, plays: June 21, 22, 24, 25.

Written and performed by Ronnie Marmo

Directed by Joe Mantegna

Set by Danny Cistrone

Lighting by Matt Richter

Costume by Nigel Lythgoe

Composer/arranger, Michael NOMAD Ripoli

Iconoclastic, irreverent, provocative comedian-social critic, Lenny Bruce lived from Oct. 13, 1925 until he died of a drug overdose on Aug. 3, 1966. He was active from 1947 to 1966. He reveled in abrasive, scatological language. He influenced many like-minded comedians such as George Carlin (and his wonderful 7 forbidden words routine), Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Joan Rivers and Bill Maher to name just a few.

Actor Ronnie Marmo has written and stars in I’m not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce presenting some of Lenny Bruce’s routines (singing “All Alone” when a relationship broke up), and issues that occupied his time. He believed firmly in free speech and had to fight that right all the way to the Supreme Court because the law at the time felt that he did not have the freedom to use many of the words he did in a public performance. Interestingly Lenny Bruce was charged with using obscenities in his act years ago, while all those words have been heard on public television last month. Succession, anyone, and its plethora of swearwords in many and various combinations, including the ‘c’ word?

Our first sighting of Lenny Bruce (Ronnie Marmo) is sitting on a toilet, naked. It’s the last day of his life and we are led to believe he died there, a needle in his arm. We learn that he might have collapsed on the floor but the police wanted to have a bit of fun and so they propped him on the toilet and posed him there with the needle in his arm. We then go back to the beginning of the making of Lennie Bruce.

Lennie Bruce believed in telling the truth so he tells us at the beginning of the play. He asks members of the audience if they have ever done various things involving parts of the body, their own and others. He gets up close and personal often with the audience and the questions are usually scatological. He believes in freedom of speech and that means using language others might find offensive. He pulls out a Life Magazine with pictures of President Kennedy’s assassination and shows a picture of Jackie Kennedy climbing up the back seat of the car to the top of the trunk. He says that the public has been lied to—that she is not trying to go for help, she is trying to escape, to run away from her dying husband. He is quite adamant about that fact.

Ronnie Marmo believes that Lenny Bruce ‘was the Godfather of Comedy.’ Even Phyllis Feldman, the Artistic Director of Teatron Toronto Jewish Theatre says in her programme note “As the most controversial and undisputed comedic legend of all time, his outspoken repertoire and freestyle comedy paved the way for many future comedians to follow.’ I would challenge that assertion that Lenny Bruce was ‘the most controversial and undisputed comedic legend of all time.’ Perhaps that might be true to those who were around for Lenny Bruce’s hay day, but there have been other comedians after Lenny Bruce who have learned from him and bettered him in the instruction. I would put George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Bill Maher and our own Rick Mercer in that cutting comedian category.

Ronnie Marmo notes in his programme essay that “During these tumultuous times, I believe he (Lenny Bruce) is the voice this country needs. In the 1960s, he exposed many of the ‘untouchable’ subjects that are in the news again now: religion, racism, immigration, xenophobia, gender inequality, sexual identity, the criminal justice system, capital punishment, bail reform, government and police brutality, corrupt capitalism, the opiate epidemic, marijuana legalization, censorship….and over 50 years later, all the issues Lenny was fighting for are still so relevant and even radical.’  

The interesting thing about Ronnie Marmo’s programme note is that precious few of the things Lenny Bruce is supposed to have exposed in his comedy routines, are in Ronnie Marmo’s show I’m Not A Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce. He provides a rather choppy biography of how Lenny Bruce got his start, dates many women, met his wife, took drugs, etc. and in his act professed to tell the truth about the world and challenged his audience with his language etc. He also got in trouble with the police and the courts because they found his act obscene. It would be tame today. And looking at this show from the lens of more than 50 years ago, Lenny Bruce was not that funny, compared to comedians today. It would be interesting how Lenny Bruce would deal with the vicious rumour-mill of (anti)social media today.

Ronnie Marmo captures Lenny Bruce’s‘ticks’ and physical traits by fluffing his hair frequently, hitching up his pants, straightening his tie, checking his zipper, leaning on his microphone and seemingly dropping the last word(s) of his patter so that one often doesn’t get the full sense of the line, even though he is microphoned. The woman behind me kept asking “What did he say?” And the gentleman next to her kept his finger in his ear trying to regulate his hearing aid only to produce that high piercing sound.

Ronnie Marmo’s director, Joe Mantegna, has him on the move, prowling the stage, talking all the while in Lenny Bruce’s lilting cadence.  Occasionally Ronnie Marmo is out of the range of the lights and it’s hard to see him upstage. At the end of the show, projected on the back wall, are names of comedians who one assumes were influenced by Lenny Bruce. I say ‘assumes’ because there is a microphone centre-stage with a bright light shining at the audience that obstructs what is being projected. Was there no run through of this show with someone in the audience looking at it from all angles, to prevent these kinds of glitches? Frustrating.

Not a funny or bracing night in the theatre.

Teatron Toronto Jewish Theatre presents:

Plays: June 24, 25

Running time: 90 minutes.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Phyllis Feldman June 30, 2023 at 9:59 am

Hi Lynn,
Thank you for coming to the show and I appreciate your opinion and comments.
Do remember that as far as funny and it is a line in the show and specifically the title of the show for a reason – I’m Not A Comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce. Bruce was much more a social commentary radical and so ahead of his time than a funny stand up comedian, however that is exactly how he got his start. And although yours is a professional opinion, the only somewhat negative comment I have heard from all the accolades the show received. Interesting also is that no one else has complained about the light obscuring the site lines of the show. Thanks again.

Phyllis Feldman


2 Lynn July 3, 2023 at 2:46 pm

Dear Ms Feldman,
Thanks for your comment. I’m always intrigued when a person notes that mine is the only ‘somewhat negative’ comment amid so much praise as if that negates my comment. It doesn’t, it offers another point of view that is equally valid. And while the title says he is NOT a comedian, history and reputation puts that first. Lenny Bruce was a comedian. Sure he provided social commentary–certainly more than the show as I said. And because no one complained that the light obscured the sight lines of the back wall means what? That I didn’t notice it? Oh, dear. To be safe and to accommodate the audience, please move the microphone. All the best, Lynn Slotkin