Lenny Bruce was not only one of the great standup storytellers, he was also one of the first to take the stage without a planned routine and push the boundaries of comedy as far as he could take them. Charged with the energy of the unfamiliar audience and the performance risks he was taking, Bruce riffed, ranted, invented, reminisced. He got political, he got sleazy, he let you know what he was thinking, regardless of whether cops were waiting in the wings to drag him offstage and into a jail cell for offensive public behavior. For a few moments he felt like that shady, animated, searingly honest friend we always wished we had.
A one-man show about Bruce is a tall order. There's the typical bioplay temptation to force every significant event of a life into an evening's entertainment. There's the tendency, with someone so much larger than life, to caricature and miss the true intonations of a once-living spirit. Then there's casting: A production can't settle for an actor who isn't as funny as the man himself.
Lenny's Back steps gracefully and triumphantly over every one of these traps. With a smart team of writers, brilliant direction, and one of the most inspired performances I've seen in a long time, this production is a true feat of creative energy. Writers Sam Bobrick and Julie Stein have carefully sifted through Bruce's life. Not only have they chosen only the most revealing anecdotes and remembrances—his battles over censorship, his odd home life with a showbiz mom and uptight British father, his bouts with drug addiction, his bittersweet romantic relationships—but they have also arced them nicely into a short, fast-paced dramatic structure. Miraculously they have also made the most awkward of ideas—the comic rises and tells stories from the grave—feel unbelievably natural. The piece has a conversational feel, delivered in Bruce's darkly funny style, and when the hugely talented performer Barry Pearl begins his work, we instantly feel we are listening to Bruce's channeled spirit.
The role could not have been better cast. Pearl shares the comic's unparalleled timing, his nasally, gravelly smoker's voice, his unique ability to roll four letter words off his tongue in way that is smart, slick, and more charming than offensive. And whether through divine coincidence or tireless preparation, Pearl also shares that kind of cool, seen-it-all persona on which the piece's darker moments hinge. Pearl's performance is more than an uncanny impression. His eyes light up with every story, every diatribe, so beautifully and respectfully does he inhabit this man's life. Bobrick, who also directs the piece, provides a casual, fluid blocking that never appears stilted.
This is a diamond in the rough of biographical plays, a chance to learn not only a bit about Lenny Bruce but also to see just what can be achieved through brevity, good taste, a lot of hard work.
"Lenny's Back," presented by Theatre of Will at the American Renegade Theatre, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hollywood. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m. Sept. 28-Nov. 3. $15. (818) 763-1834.