Ronnie Marmo as Lenny Bruce review-a fine one man show at The Biograph Theater, Chicago

Joe Mantegna and Ronnie Marmo in rehearsal; photo by Doren Sorell
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I’M NOT A COMEDIAN…I’M LENNY BRUCE is currently being produced in repertory by Ronnie Marmo’s Theatre 68 at the Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago. Directed by Tony Award winning stage actor, film and TV star Joe Mantegna, it’s a one man show on stage for 8 performances only, through April 2, 2024. It’s written and acted by the multi talented Marmo, who also stars in and directs Bill W. and Dr. Bob, running at the Richard Christiansen Theater in the same venue through April 14.

Ronnie Marmo as Lenny Bruce; photo by Doren Sorell

Marmo has received a lot of well justified praise for his portrayal of Lenny Bruce, whose brand of sardonic, black, profane and over the top humor was perfected in strip joints and bars and tested in court battles he braved defending his right to free speech and expression. Bruce had an unusual and far too short life, dying of a morphine overdose on the toilet at 40 in 1966. Raised by a father who left early and a mother who was a small time but well loved showgirl, he joined the Navy at 16 and served his country gallantly in World War 2 and later as a Merchant Marine in the hell of Korea.

The show is mesmerizing as Marmo takes us on a physical and visceral journey through portions of the stand up guy’s courtroom battles as well as numerous bits of his schtick and even his little known candid writings. Branded a “sick comic”, Bruce was effectively blacklisted by primetime; luckily, the recordings he made for Fantasy Records and the tapes of his famous 1959 Carnegie Hall performance – and others-live on. 

Ronnie Marmo as Lenny Bruce; photo by Doren Sorell

Only an actor-director as thoroughly schooled in tough guy roles as Mantegna could have successfully helped shape the equally experienced Marmo into producing an uncanny pastiche of the New York/Long Island accent and the speed-driven oddball physicality of the now legendary Jewish über hipster. Bruce had a rapid fire, hypomanic, stream of consciousness delivery, deliberately spontaneous, reportedly dreading the rehearsed, the pat delivery.  

Marmo has clearly studied the comedic icon in depth, subtly miming Bruce’s amped up ability to respond with split second timing to the promptings of the audiences at his shows. Opening night, the sly and sexy looks he directed at his wife (Janelle Marmo, sound engineer)- the winks, the grins, the turns, the rumpling of his hair, his clothes, the doing up and loosening of his tie, the faultless timbre of the voice, the intonations, the whispers, the whines…

The way he inhabited/inherited the subject is a fantastic portrayal of the disintegration of the original artist’s personality under the onslaught of legal problems, domestic atrocity, and the destruction of his selfhood through drugs. Watching Marmo jiving to jive, picking at himself, nodding and scratching, was to witness a terrible reckoning coming, and to see acting genius in action  giving us a life spent carelessly. 

For information and tickets for both Theatre 68 plays currently running at The Biograph theater,  go to ad***@vi************.org


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