click here for pics from Lenny
by Benedict Nightingale (NY Times/Aug. 29)
It might not matter that Julian Barry's "Lenny," first seen on Broadway in 1971, is a dramatic mess, for its subject was a mess, too, and sometimes a self-indulgent one. Again, there is nothing innately wrong with presenting Lenny Bruce's story as a series of memories free-associated between the comedian's appearances on an obscenity rap before a wearily reproachful New York judge. But do facial masks and other such surreal effects genuinely enrich or enlighten? Why the graphically staged nude encounter with the stripper who became Bruce's wife? Why so many minor or minimal supporting characters, requiring so much doubling and trebling by the actors. As biography, the play feels sketchy and confusing.
|Eddie Izzard as the
comedian Lenny Bruce in Sir Peter Hall's revival of "Lenny."
Yet when Izzard is alone at the mike, the dramatic clutter seems irrelevant. True, he is plumper than Bruce, who was wispy; and where Bruce slouched and twitched, he tends to snake and sinuously undulate. True, the comic routines that have made Izzard famous in Britain are more surreal, less socially aware and politically scathing than those that gave Bruce his American notoriety. But at some essential level the connections between the two men are greater than their differences. Izzard has acknowledged Bruce as the pioneer of his own brand of intelligent, offbeat stand-up comedy, and here offers his slapdash, subversive forefather a wonderfully accomplished filial tribute.
On opening night he kept the audience rapt with several of Bruce's trademark numbers: the outing of the Lone Ranger as a closet homosexual; the car crash that leaves one mutilated victim wanting to have sex with the nurse he sees walking through the dead and dying; the appearance in St. Patrick's Cathedral of Christ and Moses, complete with a retinue of lepers, while an uncaring cardinal grandly denounces poverty.
But Izzard gives us not only Bruce's nerve but his nerves. At the end, he is the figure I myself saw in 1964 in Greenwich Village: gray-faced, shattered, incoherently obsessed with the arrests and court cases that were bankrupting him, not very funny, and, I suspect, already overdosing on the drugs that were to kill him two years later.
The performance catches not only Bruce's sly mischief and abrasive charm but also his ramshackle despair. And if it doesn't fully explain why Eric Bogosian calls him "St. Lenny, who died for our sins," an essentially moral figure whose denunciations of hypocrisy and puritanism turned the squares into a lynch mob, it is hardly Izzard's fault.
The house lights go up for the famous number in which Bruce used ethnic slurs to describe audience members; yet Barry omits the attacks on the patronizing white liberalism that the comedian thought even more racially damaging. Again, we get several examples of Bruce's distaste for sexual repression, but virtually nothing about his hatred for capital punishment and war, his belief that the executions of Eichmann and the California convict Caryl Chessman, and (more provocatively) the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima were equally evil. If the aim of the play's revival is to prove that Bruce is still a topical voice, what would better fulfill it than giving the redoubtable Izzard the chance to repeat Bruce's most telling catch phrase: "Thou Shalt Not Kill means just that"?
Nice Eddie is no Lenny
Charles Spencer reviews Lenny at the Queen's Theatre
THE alarming thing when you listen to old Lenny Bruce records today is just how unshocking, and how unfunny, the legendary comedian now seems.
This was the drug-fuelled stand-up who reduced sophisticated audiences to helpless hysteria and who was constantly in trouble with the law on obscenity raps. Yet if he appeared on television today he wouldn't create a ripple of unease.
There is, however, no doubt that Bruce mapped out new comic terrain. In an age of bland conformity in the America of the late Fifties and early Sixties, Bruce defiantly tackled the thorny subjects of race, religion and sex. He was especially relentless in his pursuit of hypocrisy and, more than 30 years after his death, he is still venerated as the godfather of alternative comedy.
It looked a terrific idea to cast Eddie Izzard, in my view the finest British comic of his generation, as the man who showed the way to today's young stand-ups. But although Izzard gives an intermittently compelling performance, Peter Hall's production is a lumbering disappointment.
Much of the trouble stems from Julian Barry's script, first seen in 1971 and now showing its age as the author trudges through the clichés of showbiz biodrama. We begin at the moment of Bruce's death from a drugs overdose, aged 40 (like Elvis he died unheroically on the lavatory) before the action dissolves into a dream sequence in which the comedian tries to justify his allegedly obscene shows to a judge and a court of law.
Then there are the flashbacks, in which we meet the wife and aunt who brought Lenny up, the stripper he married and who turned him on to hard drugs, and follow his progress from sleazy dives to the big time, followed by the endless arrests that eventually destroyed his career.
Unfortunately there is depresssingly little vim in the writing, and all the supporting characters remain crude caricatures, though Elizabeth Berkley momentarily revived my flagging attention with a welcome strip routine as Lenny's wife.
With this agreeably gratuitous exception, however, all eyes are naturally on Izzard as Lenny, who also contrives to spend a remarkable amount of time without his clothes on. But though Izzard does his damnedest and bares his all for his art, he fails to make much of a case for the dead comedian.
There's a key moment in the script when Lenny Bruce confesses that all his humour is based on "destruction and despair". Izzard's own comic style, however, is based on an inherent niceness and dotty flights of surreal fantasy. As a result you never feel the actor is in tune with his character, and the frisson of danger that enlivened Bruce's performances is fatally absent.
For without the danger, the sense of a man recklessly breaking taboos, Lenny Bruce's material often seems hideously unamusing. There is something self-advertising about his social conscience, something hiply self-regarding about his attacks on "straight" middle America. Bruce certainly didn't deserve the martyrdom he received at the hands of the Establishment, but you can't help wishing that his confrontational routines were occasionally funny as well as right-on.
Izzard is a chunky chap, who lacks Bruce's lean and wired look, and his American accent is far from secure. He is intermittently touching in Bruce's drug-addled decline, but throughout the play I found myself wishing I was watching one of Izzard's own winning performances rather than his flawed impersonation of the far less entertaining Lenny.
All mouth and no trousers
Eddie Izzard's Lenny
Bruce may bare all on stage, but we never quite get the naked truth, says JOHN PETER (Sunday
Times/Aug. 15, '99)
Was Lenny Bruce, né Leonard Schneider (1925-1966), one of them? This is one of the questions behind Julian Barry's play Lenny (Queen's Theatre), directed by Peter Hall.
Prophets with a sense of humour are rare. A joker exposes his own weaknesses as well as yours, but being a prophet is a serious business that cannot afford the compromise of self-exposure. Moses, John the Baptist and Mohammed never said anything to amuse their followers, and Jesus Christ, who began his earthly career as a prophet, is never described in the New Testament as laughing or even smiling. No, prophets with a sense of humour belong to more secular ages. Jonathan Swift was one. Voltaire was another. Friedrich Nietzsche was one, too, though Nietzsche's humour often feels like being tickled with the barrel of an assault rifle.
Lenny Bruce was a joker who probably aspired to the condition of prophet. I say probably because I do not think he ever quite got his act together. Barry's play is a collage: part life story, part nightclub act and part obscenity trial in which Lenny (if I may) defends himself before David Ryall's not unsympathetic but increasingly exasperated judge by presenting some of his notorious acts and arguing that they were not really offensive.
The play reminds me of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, a work Hall has directed more than once, in which another young man with a genius for upsetting people and conventions is confronted by a repressive society in a state of outrage. Both plays are short on rounded characters, and both work in short, jagged scenes that are put together not so much as an organic whole but as a theatrical demonstration: this, you see, the playwright says, is what happens when an irresistible subversive meets an immovable system. This is why, in the end, both plays are compulsively theatrical without being fully dramatic.
The difference, of course, is that Mozart also had a genius for something other than upsetting people, whereas with Lenny upsetting people was the aim - that and the public satisfaction of his own private obsessions. All prophets have obsessions, usually moral ones, which drive them almost with the force of biological urges. This is why prophets are necessarily cruel: biological urges have no knowledge of moral inhibitions.
Eddie Izzard's Lenny is short on cruelty. His body, which is frequently seen completely unclothed, is fleshier than Lenny's, who seems in his photographs to have been lean, almost whippet-like. (Prophets are seldom fleshy and never fat.) I never saw Lenny, and nobody under 55 is likely to have seen him, which means that for most of Izzard's audience the problem of physical likeness does not really arise. What is missing from his performance is the sense of cruelty, towards himself as well as others: the dark flower of an obsession that seems to have been crucial to Lenny's personality, public and private. There is a sophisticated geniality about Izzard, a beady-eyed generosity towards his victims, which needs to be suppressed. I think Lenny was scary: Izzard can be driven, almost manic, but never scary.
Partly, all this is Barry's fault. The text does not give Izzard and his director enough continuity to work through. Lenny has virtually no private self. His marriage and divorce, his relationship to his family, are briskly sketched in, purely functional like illustrations to a DIY booklet. To talk always about "them", somebody tells Lenny, "is rather paranoid" - but the writing gives no hint of the self-destructive poison of paranoia, hardly even of anxiety. Lenny's language was scabrous, filthy, full of disgust and self-disgust: here it is almost tame. Also, the play is too laid-back and long: 10 minutes could easily be cut from each half.
William Dudley's set consists of large sliding glass panels and mirrors that function as both nightclubs and courtrooms: the sort of places where you become dangerously transparent and defensive, where you observe both others and yourself and are observed by others in turn. Some of the characters playing legal parts wear half-masks: I can't think why. It does not add anything to the play or highlight anything in it; it is simply a tired, old-fashioned device that went out with the alienation effect, socialism and free school milk.
Where the production becomes really gripping is in Lenny's great set pieces of moral indignation cunningly disguised as outrageous humour. Here, Izzard, the master stand-up comedian, comes triumphantly into his own. The great compulsive broadsides against sexual and religious hypocrisy cascade from him like streams of gourmet poison, great glittering riffs of black laughter and fury. What English stand-up comedy I have seen, including Izzard's own, usually has a strong element of the conspiratorial: the entertainer knows exactly how far he can go and still be loved. Max Miller is the paragon of this genre. (Lady on the tube: "Is this Cockfosters?" "No, madam, the name is Miller.") There are only a few thrilling moments in this show when Izzard stops being the entertainer and becomes what Lenny was: an obscene, liberating enemy of public morality, the prophet as joker.
Lenny worked in that dangerous strip of land, prickling with moral antipersonnel mines, between actions and the words you use to describe them. Why exactly is it an offence to use the word "cocksucker" in public? According to the rules of public morality that accused Lenny of obscenity, it is offensive because it offends people, so there. In this way, silence acquits, just as certain words can be used for purposes of sanitation. This is not only a sexual matter. The Nazis called Jews vermin, but the actual extermination programme was politely called The Final Solution. Its successor today is ethnic cleansing. In sexual morality, too, things have not changed that much since Boccaccio, one of whose narrators in the Decameron remarks that women like to hold in their hands what they are ashamed to name. In Shaftesbury Avenue we are all very liberated, but how acceptable would this play be in Grantham, say, or Berwick-on-Tweed, or any Irish town outside Dublin? In the early 1960s, Lenny was refused entry into Britain by the Home Office because he was "an undesirable alien", and from the Home Office's point of view, this was entirely reasonable. Of course Lenny was undesirable. Today's Home Office does things differently: after all, they admitted Augusto Pinochet. But quite a few town councils up and down the land would still ban Lenny if they had the power and if there were a second coming.
Being a prophet, though, with or without jokes, can be a thankless business. Swift and Nietzsche both went insane, perhaps partly because the liberties they craved and argued for, social and political in Swift's case, intellectual and spiritual in Nietzsche's, were finally out of reach. And perhaps Lenny's increasing drug addiction and his wretched death from a morphine overdose, too, were a sign and an admission of defeat. We still do not quite know what freedom is. Lenny's case is not proven either way.*
(Sunday Times, August 15,
One of the striking things about Eddie Izzard's performance as Lenny Bruce at the Queen's Theatre is the amount of time our hero spends in his birthday suit. Spying the elegant figure of the suave actor Peter Bowles at Monday's opening night, I cannot resist asking him whether he is impressed at Izzard's lack of bashfulness. "Well, he's getting paid for it, isn't he?", says the actor with a twinkle. Does this mean that Bowles himself would leap at a similar opportunity? "If it was a good part," he muses. "But I'm a bit older than Eddie Izzard, you know. I'm not sure that people would really want me to take my clothes off."
Sadly, I do not have the courage to ask Bowles if he thinks Izzard has a good part, not when he is wearing his . . . Garrick Club tie and all. But one of his friends, clearly a cad, leans towards Bowles and growls: "Well, he's obviously not being paid by the inch, is he?"
The Big Play by Benedict Nightingale (The Times/Aug. 21, 1999)
THERE IS plenty wrong with Peter Hall's revival of Julian Barry's play about the late, great Lenny Bruce, and, with Eddie Izzard (above, with Elizabeth Berkley) in the lead, there's also a lot that's utterly right. Some have claimed that Izzard's portrayal of the American comedian's life isn't abrasive enough. Those, however, who saw Bruce in action will know that Izzard has caught the essence of a man who was impishly subversive in the early years and raddled and beaten as he succumbed to dope, arrests, court cases, bankruptcy and premature death in 1966. Watch Izzard's Bruce slope up to the mic and hold forth about that secret gay, the Lone Ranger, or about the horny feelings that overtake a maimed accident victim as he sees a nurse amid the corpses. You know that Izzard is bringing skill, charisma and even moral depth to Bruce's attacks on repression and hypocrisy.
Going on the Offensive
Eddie Izzard takes on Lenny Bruce's mantle. But can we still be shocked?
by Susannah Clapp
Sunday August 15, 1999/Observer
He became famous as the comedian who talked dirty and died of an overdose. His idiom was characterised by Kenneth Tynan as 'jazz-Jewish'. He is remembered by George Melly as looking something like a modern rabbi and something like a lemur. His ferocious, free-wheeling riffs paved the way for alternative comedy.
When Lenny Bruce came to England from America in 1962, he divided theatre-going London. Enthusiasts such as Melly and Tynan loved the sort of joke that described a Madison Avenue plot to boost cigarette sales by making cancer a status symbol: 'I was in Nassau last week, and everyone had it.'
They liked the stories that clustered around Bruce when he wasn't on the stage: he was said to have hired a team of prostitutes and trained them to sing, in three-part harmony in his hotel: 'Please love me, Lenny.' They thought he had new things to say about a society which found watching pornography more shocking than watching war films. They found him in person, according to Melly, 'curiously lovable and vulnerable'.
And they often found him flying on drugs. Taken to the Mellys' Hampstead home after a gig, Bruce was at first convinced that he had been spirited away to the depths of the countryside. Later, he decided he must be in a nightclub, and couldn't understand why, when Melly performed his 'Man, Woman and Bulldog' routine (which features lots of bare bum) while on the domestic hearth, he wasn't greeted with howls of horror from an audience. Melly gave him a chain from which hung a crucifix made out of World War One bullets; in return, Bruce presented him with a cheap travelling-clock.
Others walked out of his act. The actress Siobhan McKenna left Peter Cook's Establishment club after hearing Bruce on the subject of the Roman Catholic Church. A.J. Ayer also made an early exit, pronouncing Bruce 'boring'. When Cook applied to bring him back to London the following year, the Home Secretary refused him entry to the country as an undesirable alien. Posters went up in Hampstead windows pointing out that the Home Secretary was a fool and Bruce was a genius.
Two kinds of danger were involved in what Bruce did on stage. He said things which caused individuals and institutions to storm: he was constantly being arrested for obscenity. And he went without the safety-net of a rehearsed script: he improvised, he rapped, he took off and he sometimes fell down. He wasn't consistent. Quite often he wasn't funny.
It's probably impossible to recapture the outrage and the exhilaration that he provoked. There is scarcely the shadow of a shock in Julian Barry's Lenny, a creaking vehicle for Bruce's turns at the Queen's Theatre. No one is going to be alarmed by the inclusion of the word 'cock sucker' in a satirical piece - indeed, its use might by now be considered mandatory - but Bruce was arrested for using it.
Barry's play, framed by a fantasy courtroom sequence, gives brief biopic glimpses of a showbiz mother, a marriage to a stripper, the narcotics, the arrests, the illnesses. It does so without providing any insight into - indeed, hardly any sight of - the society which made Bruce snarl. Peter Hall's production makes every creak a groan. William Dudley's design - a mirrored wall, a flat pink picture of New York skyscraping - is Fifties coffee-bar exotica. In front of it, jazz musicians lounge around on the floor, clicking their fingers and addressing everyone as 'man'. The whole thing screams cool: but cool never screams.
And yet, in the middle of all this, Eddie Izzard is often captivating as Bruce. Frequently naked, with his hair sleeked black and back into a quiff, he is nonchalant with the best jokes - Why did the Mafia want to kill Einstein? Because he knew too much. He performs Bruce's dialogue with a drum - in which drum-beats echo the rhythm of a sex chant - with an inquisitive excitement that suggests his words are being conjured up on the spot. When he invites the audience to take the curse off discriminatory words by joining him in a chorus of 'Good morning Mr Nigger, how are you today?' he manages to raise an uneasy mumble from the auditorium.
But he isn't actually anything like Lenny Bruce. What he offers is not an impersonation: it is quite different from the detailed evocation of another delightfully scabrous presence provided by Peter O'Toole in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell . Words and personality are at odds here. Izzard may flaunt and float on a sort of naughtiness, but his gift is to charm, to get the audience on his side. Lenny Bruce went in and carved them up.
By Terri Paddock (www.whatson.com) August 12, 1999
Nobody can do me like I do me, whines Lenny Bruce in this biopic on the 60s shock comedian. Its a line presumably drawn from court transcripts of the many trials that Bruce was involved in during his short-lived career and which, along with excerpts of his comedy routines, form the backbone of Julian Barrys play.
But still, it seems a funny thing to include as its uttered by an actor trying to do Bruce himself - creating a moment that could have easily drawn derision from the audience by pointing up the performers shortcomings. Luckily, the performer in this instance is the British cross-dressing comedian Eddie Izzard and, while he may not do Lenny like Lenny would do Lenny, he nevertheless does a damn fine job, proving himself to be not only a crowd-pulling comedian in his own right but also a serious actor to reckon with.
Its no real surprise that Izzard handles the gig scenes so deftly, but his ability to navigate Bruces heady descent and sorry decline (often, be warned, in the nude) at the hands of the drugs, the police and the conservative masses is equally masterful. While the other actors flit on and off ably enough (with the exception of Elizabeth Berkley, playing Bruces wife, whose beauty doesnt compensate for a wooden performance), this is Izzards show.
But lets not forget that there are two comedians here. Its hard to appreciate now, more than thirty years after his overdose in 1966, just what an impact Bruce had on stand-up, not to mention the cause of free speech. Few of his sketches seem shocking anymore (with the exception of his singling out the niggers in the house - the point being that its the suppression of the word that gives it its power), and it now seems preposterous that a person could actually be arrested for saying the word cocksucker. But time and again in 1950s and 60s America, Bruce was prosecuted for such obscenity, and his battling against this label did much for the freedom that other comedians now enjoy.
Peter Halls production is highly respectful of Bruce and were left in little doubt that, insofar as the company is concerned, Bruce was in his own way a martyr. The on-stage jazz band and William Dudleys glass cage of a set, framed by back-projected street scenes, also help to capture the smoke-filled, edgy atmosphere of the era. And though the language - replete with mans, cats and daddys - is at first incredibly irritating, it too helps to place the action.
Go see Lenny now - if only to get two comedians for the price of one. And have I mentioned how great Eddie Izzard is? Forget great, hes outstanding. Lets hope he graces us with his acting talent more frequently in the future.
angry and compelling
By Alastair Macaulay (www.ft.com) August 11, 1999
The performance Eddie Izzard gives as Lenny Bruce is the compelling tribute of one great comedian to another. And it is an astonishing performance. In a lengthy two-act play - the first act alone lasts 90 minutes - I think that Izzard never once leaves the stage, and never once rests. He begins naked and at several other points is naked again; he deals with hecklers in the audience and with vast challenges onstage; and he tosses away the comedy for which he is beloved and shows us the out-of-control mania and self-destructiveness of Bruce's life.
Izzard does not give us a perfect reproduction of Bruce, and the most adorable moments of the show - notably a giddy fantasia about those sudden departures of the Lone Ranger - are considerably more Eddie than Lenny. The interest of the show lies, however, not in how alike he is to Bruce, but in how unlike.
For all his cross-dressing and his free speech about gender roles and sex, Izzard is not really a disturbing comedian in his own material. He is loved for his often sweet and dotty absurdity, which sometimes rises to baroque heights and yet remains tender. He talks about animals and Latin and the buttons on his jacket as readily and blithely as he does about society. The effect is enchanting.
Bruce, by contrast, was hard-hitting, more radical in words than style, scathing. His subjects were blacks, drugs, Jews, homos . . . in short, inequality and hypocrisy. People squirmed as they (some of them) laughed. But Bruce helped to create today's almost idyllic world whereby Izzard can cross-dress and talk freely about shagging; and in Lenny you feel the scale and force of Izzard's gratitude. The point is not precision of mimicry but seriousness of values.
Lenny is by Julian Barry, and it is a deliberately awkward show. It shows us, in roughly equal proportions, Lenny battling with the American legal system; Lenny's private life with wife, mother, aunt and drug-taking colleagues; and Lenny the public comedian. But the emphasis is not propor-tionate.
As the beginning and ending of the play make plain,
Barry's Lenny thinks there is more drama in the man who fought the law and fell apart and died than in the artist who fought audience expectations and whose comedy lives on. The audience that wants to laugh with Izzard has to watch - especially in the second half - a tale of relentless decline.
Handling this, Izzard could be sharper (Peter Hall directs). His sometimes stammering, dithering delivery - so cherishable in his own stand-up work and absolutely winning in his rendition of some of Lenny's more crazy comic flights - sometimes blunts the rhythm of the play. But he doesn't blunt Bruce's anger. Explaining to the judge why he is under attack, Bruce/ Izzard says that his mistake was in targeting "the western God, the 'in' God, the cute God, the Kennedy God". Just as you are loving him for saying "Not all Jews are Jewish; some are swapped babies", he jumps to saying "A Jew is one who killed Our Lord". Listening today, we still gasp. There is no refuge from comedy like this.
The basic shape of Hall's production is superb. The overlap between Bruce's legal life, private life and comic life is made surreal. Amid the large cast, I admired Elizabeth Berkley as Bruce's stripper drug- addict wife Rusty, David Ryall's wry judge, and especially Stephan Noonan in an assortment of roles. But the evening is carried by Izzard. His energy flows with extraordinary ease; the buoyancy of his spirit and the force of his commitment propel the whole show. Even when you are most aware of the imperfections of his impersonation, you are in no doubt that you are watching a major artist.
Izzard's Bruce is All Too Real
by Benedict Nightingale
WANT to see the late Lenny Bruce in the flesh? There were moments at the Queen's last night - for instance, when the founder of alternative comedy was having graphic sex with the stripper he briefly married, or when he finally shot his veins full of heroin, undressed and lay down beside a toilet to die - when Eddie Izzard's Lenny seemed very literally to be offering us that opportunity.
But Izzard also gives us the Bruce the world remembers. At the beginning of Julian Barry's Lenny, he bounces up to the mike, plumper than the original, but equally impish and at least as funny. And towards the end, he is very much the Bruce I once saw in Greenwich Village: grey-faced and incoherent, stoned and sad, and not very funny at all.
It's a fine performance, but the play itself sometimes seems even more cluttered than its confused and psychologically confusing subject demands. The pretence is that Bruce is remembering his life and re-enacting his numbers between his conviction for obscenity in the New York of 1964 and his death by drugs in 1966. Look at the cast of characters, and you find club owners and jazzmen, family members and cops, Daid Ryall as a judge, even James Hayes as an unnecessary Chinese waiter. With Peter Hall's production adding the occasional half-mask and other surreal effects to the mix, it isn't surprising you get a pretty cursory sense of Lenny's history.
Again, I wish that Barry, who rightly believes that Bruce was fundamentally serious and seriously misunderstood by officialdom, had given stage time to some of his more notable crusades, notably the one against capital punishment. But he is generous enough when it comes to recalling those sly, scathing attacks on puritanism and hypocrisy, religiosity, racism and sexual repression. And a black-haired Izzard skitters and sensuously lopes in front of a set that's half-nightclub, half-courtroom, offering us several of the acts that reverberated down the 1960s and have their echoes still.
There's the early skit on the Lone Ranger, who saves a town, makes a graceful exit, and is execrated by the rednecks who come to thank him because it emerges he's lone because he's gay. There's the celebrated defence of the male urge, unstoppable even when the man himself is maimed in a car accident and spots a pretty nurse among the dead and dying. Above all, there's the famous evocation of the arrival in St Patrick's Cathedral of Christ, Moses and attendant invalids, and Cardinal Spellman's nervous astonishment: "Look, you lepers, no offence, but just don't touch anything, OK?"
Izzard engineers these numbers with great skill, dealing effortlessly with hecklers both genuine and planted in the first-night audience. He also makes you see how and why Bruce offended many of his American contemporaries, not least by making their laws look bone-headed. But what surprised me last night was the extent to which his performance made it clear that those laws were not merely silly and funny. Yes, I'll recall Izzard's subversive comedy, but even more his look and sound as he muttered and raged through an act that by 1965 had become embarrassingly self-pitying. If I'd been asked beforehand if the British comedian had the range to be plausibly shattered, demented, distraught, I'd have said, probably not. Now I know he is a better actor than I dared hope.
IZZARD RESURRECTS LENNY BRUCE WITH
FUN AND PATHOS
Nicholas de Jongh
|When the lights go up on stage to reveal a naked Eddie Izzard lying sprawled near a lavatory, something both bold and unplausible is at once exposed. I do not like to criticise and actor when stripped to his essentials. But at first sight it seems the cruellest cut of Peter Hall's most striking production that Mr Izzard, bizarrely cast as the Jewish-American comedian Lenny Bruce should challenge realism by flaunting his uncircumsised state.|
Yet dispite this local difficulty Izzard
triumphantly manages to suspend disbelief. His Lenny, who suffered a fatal overdose of
American puritanism, prideries and police harassment, proceeds to save and make the
Julian Barry's play, premiered on Broadway in 1971 and filmed with Dustin Hoffman, has not worn well. It takes Izzard's star cabaret turn and William Dudley's imposing stage designs to disguise the play's thread-bare state. Both the programme and and amplified voice at the close, when Lenny lies dead of a morphine overdose, roll call the obscenity charges, show closures and court cases to which he was subjected. But the play gives insufficient impression of what Bruce suffered. This deadpan anarchist with his flock of raw expletives, mockery of organised religion and advocacy of unorganised sex, was, after all, forever up against conformist America.
The form of Barry's play is most exciting. He does away with chronological plod and grind. He scorns realism and carves a theatrical masaic, whisking the action backwards and forwards until you hardly know where you are. Dudley's teffific set, with its wall of mirrors, and its photographed back projections, is a sort of dreamlike void where Lenny gives a crucial stand-up performance. In vain he pleads his innocence of obscenity charges, while David Ryall's nicely flummoxed judge forever tries to interrupt the comedian's stream of outrageousness. "Cocksucker" is the Bruce expletive that leaves the judge and upright America outraged.
These please serve as a cue for Lenny to slip into his club act. Once in the club mood, free-association sends the comedian even further away from the courtroom. The protracted convolutions of this jump-cut, almost filmic, over-long play are hard to follow. The age of Eisenhower and Kennedy are almost elided. Lenny's fraught relationship with his wife, a dejected stripper whom Elizabeth Berkley endows with lovely erotic languor and a true dancing talent, fades out. Lenny the play is best enjoyed, therefore, as Bruce's cabaret turns, regularly interrupted by the police.
Izzard, even with dyed black hair, looks no more Jewish than Blackpool rock. His plump, camp persona hardly conjures up the lean and hungry Bruce. But who wants photographic realism? Izzard's voice has the right American timbre. His quick fire vehement Lenny, forever scales the heights of nervous tension, lets loose his pent-up, mocking fury as he seems to ad lib and improvise his way through scathing turns.
His New York cardinal, for whom the second coming causes no end of fluster or his grave introduction to bestiality - "Do you just eat the chiken?" - are culled from Bruce's old comic acts. "You have to give up masterbation and you can't do it gradually," he warns soulfully. More than 30 years on Izzard makes Bruce's ancient jokes seem vigorously young. And in a breathless finale, of scattered wits and witticism, as his final breakdown happens in the public glare and in between laughs, Izzard's Lenny achieves high pathos too.
His version of events
by Michael Billington
Wednesday August 11, 1999
"Nobody can do me like I can do me," says the eponymous hero of Julian Barry's Lenny. Too true: the great comic spirit is unique. And, valiantly though Eddie Izzard tries, he cannot wholly recreate the shock-impact of a mordant New York Jewish satirist such as Lenny Bruce.
The real problem, however, lies in the form of Barry's 1971 play. It starts with Lenny, found guilty on obscenity charges, arguing his own case before an unusually tolerant judge: claiming that his act has been misrepresented, he takes him through the story of his life.
As a biographical device, it is clumsy: worse still, it means that we only hear Lenny's version of events. That he was persecuted by a hypocritical society is beyond doubt; but it means we never hear the whole story about his marriage, his professional misfortunes or the reasons for his increasing drug-dependency.
The main justification for the show is that it gives us large slices of Lenny's stage-act. It shows his modest beginnings doing lousy jokes and mediocre impersonations in dives. It then demonstrates his gradual emergence as a satiric monologist: one who saw it as his moral mission to tell the truth to a lying society. In one scene he posits the panic induced at St Patrick's cathedral in New York by the return to earth of Christ and Moses. In another he brings up the house lights and asks: "Are there any niggers in the club tonight?" He then goes on to calculate the number of spicks, micks and greaseballs present claiming: "It is suppression of the word that gives it its power."
Izzard is at his best in this moment of naked confrontation with the audience: suddenly you feel the frisson that Lenny himself must have induced in his nightclub audience. But Izzard is up against two problems. One is that every two-bit comic now prides him or herself on saying the supposedly unsayable: the threshold of what is publicly acceptable has been lowered since the 60s. The other difficulty is that Izzard is a natural charmer where Bruce clearly enjoyed an abrasive relationship with his audiences. What we see is a noble attempt to recreate the original Lenny that catches his delight in spiralling fantasy but that lacks the moral danger he must have possessed.
Peter Hall's production does its best to unify an inchoate play through the use of masks by the minor characters and through a William Dudley design that makes effective use of mirrored surfaces.
David Ryall as the judge, Elizabeth Berkley as Lenny's stripper wife and James Hayes as a succession of authority-figures lend good support. But what I got from the evening were echoes of Lenny's nightclub act and of the hysteria he induced in middle America, but only a fitful sense of his moral anger and dazzling, dangerous magnetism.