Lenny Bruce…In His Own Words
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 30, 2006
"Cocksucker," the word that got Lenny Bruce arrested for obscenity 40-odd years ago, wouldn't raise an eyebrow in a PG-13 movie these days. But the night after I saw Lenny Bruce...In His Own Words, Cindy Sheehan was arrested (by "mistake," as it was subsequently reported) for wearing a t-shirt bearing the words “2245 Dead. How many more?” to the State of the Union Address.
Lenny Bruce said, "What's obscene is the bullshit and the decadence that rules this country under the guise of Christian love and democratic goodness."
As I write these words, the headline on MSNBC's website reads, "Bush seeks $120B more for Iraq, Afgahnistan conflicts." Lenny Bruce said, "The war is obscene." (He was talking about a different one, but that doesn't make his statement any less provocative.)
Need I say more about why a show like Lenny Bruce...In His Own Words might be instructive and important for an American audience in 2006?
It's all about verisimilitude; verisimilitude and resonance. For a little more than an hour, actor Jason Fisher, who I presume was born after Bruce died, impersonates the comedian with enormous authenticity and spirit. He paces across the intimate Zipper Theatre stage like a caged tiger, usually hunched over in a posture that hurts even to look at; he pauses (rarely) to take a sip of water or (at one point) puff some drags on a cigarette, but the rest of the time he talks to us, and he keeps us riveted.
The play itself takes the shape of a stand-up comedian's set, but the material—all of it culled from Bruce's routines—is cannily arranged, to paint a portrait of a man whose life is probably unfamiliar except in the barest outline to most people nowadays; a man who was certainly one of the most influential cultural icons of the mid-20th century (remember: we can now say "cocksucker" on stage, and on this website for that matter, without fear of imminent arrest, and we have him to thank for that).
The show is not as funny as we might hope; in fact, it's usually downright scary, first, for being so prescient and therefore timely, and second, for reminding us that there still are taboos in our life that, for all that's happened since Lenny Bruce was alive, remain untouchable. Let's face it: it's uncomfortable to hear a white man call people in the audience "niggers." It's uncomfortable to hear a Jew talk irreverently about the crucifixion of Christ. It's uncomfortable to be confronted with ugly truths about what a complacent, uncaring, inert bunch of bastards we are, letting all that's genuinely obscene in the world persist without comment or action.
All that discomfort was the point of Bruce's act, and—make no mistake—it's the point of Joan Worth & Alan Sacks's play, too (they are the writers, directors, and producers of this show). They've achieved what they've set out to do, worthily. All that has to happen is for people to get disturbed and shaken up. Are Americans in 2006 up to the challenge?