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We can measure how far American culture has come since social satirist Lenny Bruce challenged the proprieties of the 1950s and 1960s by noting that New Times can print the word cocksucker and no one's going to get hauled off to jail on an obscenity rap. Cocksucker. In October 1961, Bruce was apprehended outside a San Francisco nightclub for saying that word during his act. Subsequent pickups on obscenity and narcotics charges, up until his death of a drug overdose in 1966, just might have made him the most arrested entertainer in history. Arguably one of our most controversial entertainers, Bruce's singular brand of truth-telling humor, simultaneously crude and cerebral, spread fault lines through the straight, conformist landscape of the Eisenhower and Kennedy years.
These days we may be able to say and show more in public, thanks in part to Bruce's groundbreaking free-speech crusades, but our moral vigilantes wield just as punitive a stick as ever. For this reason, director Mark Swaner was moved to revive Julian Barry's 1971 play, Lenny, an episodic Rorshach blot of Bruce's life and times. Although the production, at Florida Playwrights' Theatre in Hollywood, errs slightly on the sentimental side toward the end, Todd Allen Durkin's electrifying star turn as the irreverent hipster comedian provides one of the most unsettling and powerful performances of the year.
A middle-class kid with a pretty-boy face, Bruce was inducted into show business by his comedian-dancer mother, Sadie Kitchenberg, stage named Sally Marr. He learned his trade on the streets of New York City, taking his impersonations (upstart comics in the 1940s termed themselves impressionists; seasoned entertainers called them mimics) of James Cagney and Peter Lorre on the road. Emceeing a strip show in Baltimore, he met and married stripper "Hot" Honey Harlow (named Rusty in Julian Barry's play and played with feline junkie abandon by Elisa Blynn). Moving to California, Bruce led a sexually tumultuous smack-shooting, jazz-inspired nightclub life with Honey until their divorce in the mid-Fifties, all the while honing his act.
The lack of mainstream respectability that made burlesque shows the bottom of the entertainment barrel worked in Bruce's favor, allowing him to abandon requisite comic routines for a stream-of-consciousness style closer to the improvisational jazz played by the band members he hung out with. Working strip joints, Bruce increasingly hauled the outrageous no-holds-barred crassness of backstage show business life into the public spotlight, taking advantage of the raunchy climate to expose his sexual fantasies on-stage verbally. As a following grew, his shtick evolved into statement; his vitriolic wit moved from skewering show business to castigating religion, medicine, government, law, and phony liberalism. At the heart of his social critique was this question: What is obscene? His arrests accelerated until he virtually abandoned his stage career to self-study law, desperate to make his case -- that obscenity lies in the meaning assigned to words and not the words themselves -- in court by, as Barry's script phrases it, "playing the big room." Although ultimately exonerated, Bruce was nonetheless broken financially and emotionally by the legal struggles, and he died at the age of 40.
Given all that, you can imagine that convincingly replicating Bruce on stage is no mean feat. Not only does the 22-year-old Durkin have to distinguish himself outside the performing shadow cast by Bruce's records, tapes, and written recollections, but he's also up against memorable portrayals of the late comedian by both Cliff Gorman on the New York stage and Dustin Hoffman in Bob Fosse's film Lenny. Durkin and director Swaner make a smart choice from the start. Rather than cloning Bruce by assuming his exact gestures, accent, or verbal rhythms, Durkin interprets the guy by projecting Bruce's obsessions, addictions, self-destructiveness, rage, scorn, paranoia, imagination, and brilliance from the inside out. This tack results in a multifaceted view of a lonely man struggling against both internal and external pressures, relishing his role as social pariah while desperately seeking establishment approval.
Through rapid-fire rendering of the comedian's bits, Durkin combines Bruce's signature mental leaps with the consummate showmanship of an entertainer in control of his craft. Most memorably, Durkin accompanies himself with a pair of drumsticks as he scat-sings the infamous "To Is a Preposition, Come Is a Verb" routine that reproduces Bruce's memory of overhearing sex talk while waking up in the middle of the night as a child ("Did you come? Did you come good?"). And let me tell you, I squirmed during the notorious bit that begins with Durkin, as Bruce, peering into the audience and asking if there are any niggers in here tonight, a prelude that builds to an auctioneer's demand for guineas, Polacks, micks, and kikes.
Durkin strikes only one false note, which occurs at the end of the evening when his Bruce pleads for rachmunis (Yiddish for pity), angling a bit too much toward the image of Bruce as a martyr. Director Swaner indulges in a bit of Bruce-romanticizing as well, by bookending the production with Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence," a sweetly innocent anthem to alienation, whereas there was nothing remotely innocent about Bruce's angst. On the other hand, playing a Bob Dylan paean to Bruce as the audience exits the theater (as Swaner does here) left an appropriately gritty impression.