A new play premiering at the Fringe imagines what Lenny Bruce would say if he came back to life today.
For 49 years, Lenny Bruce has been looking down — or up, as many would have you believe to be his final destination — at the world. And he’s angry.
He sees not a whole lot has changed from the time his flame was extinguished — albeit by his own hand from what was officially termed a morphine overdose, though it was more likely heroin — after he had torched the comedic world. Never before had someone been as satirically outrageous — and so on target — about race, religion, abortion, homosexuality, politics, about virtually any controversial topic.
Now, after 49 years observing, he’s coming back to once again say what’s on his mind in A Spirit on Parole: An Evening with Lenny Bruce, which will be performed Sept. 11 to 13 at the Academy of Vocal Arts as part of the Fringe Festival.
“This is kind of a redemption piece for Lenny in that he gets to come back and set the record straight,” said producer Christopher Bruce, a Wilmington native, who’s taken author Lance Freeman’s work and put it together, with Brooklyn-born Jacob Mirer portraying Lenny. “He’s worked out a deal with the higher-ups to tell his side of the story and give perspective to all the controversy surrounding him in his lifetime.
“Lenny was good at creating conversation, whether you liked him or him. He was a polarizing figure. Modern-day comedy wouldn’t be the same without him. He paved the way.”
Indeed, most modern comedians these days are more like Bruce in that they tell stories rather than jokes. “He’d talk about life,” said Chris Bruce, whose interest was piqued back when his high school football coach in Syracuse asked if, since he and Lenny had the same last name, they were related (they’re not). “That’s something Lenny did better than anybody.
“He wasn’t telling one-liners. He was commenting on society and talking real issues. He wasn’t afraid to talk about topics that were taboo. A lot of people and certain groups took offense to that and tried to shut him down. But he left a mark.”
The play, which is technically more of a dramatic reading while they work out the kinks, opens Sept. 11, which Chris Bruce finds ironic, knowing Lenny would’ve surely had something to say about such a memorable day. There will be two performances on Sept. 12, followed by a Sunday matinee.
For Mirer, who’s studied Bruce extensively, watching hours of tape and trying to scrape up each nugget about his life, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “Doing a one-man show is different from anything else,” said the 40-year-old Mirer, who teaches acting at the New York Film Academy and has had small roles in movie shorts and other theatrical works. “When it’s a one-man show of someone who’s important, you want to bring his personality to life. Lenny was a very powerful human being who had integrity. I’m honored and totally psyched. I want to do it well and have something real here. “Luckily I had a connection to Lenny, being Jewish.”
Born Leonard Alfred Schneider, the son of Myron and Sadie (who preferred being called Sally) Schneider in 1925 in Mineola, N.Y., young Lenny’s life was uprooted when his parents split up. “His mother left when he was young,” said Mirer, who’s spent months preparing for this. “His father was overprotective and couldn’t deal with him. So he had a lot of anger. Later he fell in love with a stripper” — Honey Harlow, whom he married and who gave birth to his only child, Kitty. “His relationship with her was tumultuous. Being an artist and a comedian takes a toll.”
All of that and more will come out in the show. As for his Jewish roots, while Lenny wasn’t very observant and often used slang and other derogatory terms about his own people, he could still relate to them.
“The Jewish identity and the culture of the Jews deals with oppression,” explained Mirer, like Bruce a single father with an 18-month-old daughter, Rebecca. “He could relate with that struggle for others who’d been oppressed — like blacks and gays. He realized that commonality’s not just religious. He spoke out for civil rights in a big way. A lot of his schtick was poking fun at deep-seated ways. He’d speak out against them using comedy.”
Bruce’s irreverence led to him being arrested for obscenity in San Francisco in 1961 and later in Chicago and in Greenwich Village. That did nothing to do stop him, nor did his 1961 and ’62 arrests for drug possession here in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, respectively.
Drugs had become a big part of his life by then, before ultimately taking it at age 40.
“Society at the time was too closed-minded,” said Mirer, whose portrayal of Bruce will differ from Dustin Hoffman’s Academy Award-nominated performance in the 1974 film, Lenny, directed by Bob Fosse. “He had a lot of anger and fell into the beatnik culture of that time.
“Drugs came into play which helped him interact off the stage. Like Robin Williams and John Belushi, drugs helped him maintain a semblance of balance in his life.”
Even if it killed him. “He’d be the smartest guy in room, but didn’t always make the right choices,” said Chris Bruce, who got his start in the entertainment business as “YoUDee,” the mascot at the University of Delaware, where he was mentored by Dave Raymond, the original Phillie Phanatic. “He’s been gone almost 50 years now.
“Most of the younger generation may not have ever heard of Lenny Bruce, let alone what he stood for. I think he’d have as much to say now as he ever did. He’d want to stir the world up and give it one last go.”
Then, when his “parole” is over, he’ll head back up — or down, if you prefer — and continue raising hell.
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