Thursday, April 15, 2004
In Unicorn Theater’s excellent new two-man show Mr. Bruce, Do You Swear?, doomed ‘60s-era comedian Lenny Bruce gets one last chance to comment on the society that destroyed him while slinging a few arrows at America today.
With help from an extraordinary performance by Jody Gilmore and Rob Foster’s thoughtful and entertaining script, this world premiere production successfully resurrects the embattled freethinker.
Demonstrating how Bruce’s material changed stand-up comedy from “just telling jokes” to an intelligent form of entertainment, Foster’s play concentrates on the comedian’s fall from the limelight and his subsequent physical deterioration and overdose death in 1966.
Bruce’s bits, some of which Gilmore performs verbatim in the play, take the form of frequently obscene stories, skits, and commentary. The public performance of this material resulted in repeated trouble with the law and Bruce’s obscenity trials are now considered to be significant benchmarks in the history of First Amendment freedoms.
The play’s conceit is that Nat Hentoff, a contemporary biographer played by Foster, has conjured the memory of Lenny Bruce, allowing him to defend himself. This meta-fictional twist confuses the line between biography and imagination but gives the play an interesting and subtle sub-text.
When Gilmore initially emerges from backstage and peers out over the bridge of his nose at the audience, it’s an impressive moment. The actor’s physical resemblance to Bruce is undeniable.
Gilmore channels the comedian’s raw, edgy energy, frequently nailing Bruce’s mannerisms and routines without straying into the realm of cheap impression. His character occasionally loses the melancholy hipness that made Lenny Bruce Lenny Bruce, but then Gilmore is not actually portraying Bruce, he’s portraying a daydreaming biographer’s memories of Bruce.
Gilmore’s Lenny Bruce blasts the absurdities of America’s moral compass today, relives the trials and tribulations of his final six years, and argues with Hentoff. In turn, the writer flogs his conjured ghost with a sharp tongue, forcing him to relive painful memories, including the public witch-hunts that destroyed his career and sent him to an early grave.
It’s a clever twist that allows Foster to assume the roles of judge, clubs emcee, bailiff, and memorably, a cop reading the transcript of a Lenny Bruce routine in court with, as Bruce complains, “all the clean stuff taken out.”
Gilmore’s on-stage costume and make-up changes effectively document the physical and mental deterioration that led to Bruce’s death. From a hip sports jacket to the priest’s collar he wore during the obscenity trials, from a pervert’s trench coat to a junkie’s bathrobe, Bruce sags before the audience’s eyes beneath the weight of the disembodied voice’s condemnations.
In the end, we are not sure whether Bruce is entirely unrepentant. He swears he’s “not sorry for one goddamn word of it,” yet also wonders aloud if any of it was worthwhile. Of course it’s Hentoff who tells him, “People forget and they have to be reminded.”
Yet Bruce is suspicious of Hentoff. At one point he demands to know why the writer hasn’t referred to his drug use or his shameful death on the floor of a Hollywood Hills bathroom.
It’s at this moment that we see Hentoff as narrator most clearly. He’s more than a biographer. He’s a diehard fan who idolizes his subject and the Bruce we have been presented is the Bruce of his invention. Mr. Bruce, Do You Swear? is as much about the nature of intimate biography as it is about Lenny Bruce.
Mr. Bruce, Do You Swear? continues at the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts, Guadalupe at 4th, Carmel, through May 2. 649-0259.