HE HAD ONLY BEGUN to realize that war kills and the Great Society starves when police carted Lenny Bruce to the morgue. Bruce was cool, he was funny. Harrassed by narcotics and obscenity charges, Bruce was sick--but not with the diseases the grand juries called him to account for. He was a symptom of the biased, uptight, closed-fisted society he satirized: if there were peace and tranquility, Bruce commented, then he would be there in the unemployment line with Herbert Hoover and Jonas Salk.
To the few who were attuned to his wit, Bruce was a folk hero; today, he is a vague shadow known only from clips from the Steve Allen show or a line from a Dylan song. Now Dunster House's splendid production of Lenny brings back the caustic comedian to those of us who have heard we should admire him, but don't know why.
Woven from Bruce's life and words, Julian Barry's play tells why by lifting the audience out of the kingdom of facile judgment that Bruce reviled--the kingdom where the tribe, clad in patchwork dashikis, determines that the man who gives it up for God is best, the man who doesn't is second best, and the man who talks about it is dirty." Barry gives us the whole brash, bitter, sex-loving, comic man.
As Lenny Bruce, Alan Franken is the nerve center of the production. Handling Lenny Bruce's words with a sure feel for their comedy and poignancy, Franken makes it needless to debate the accuracy of his portrayal, Franken is not imitating Bruce, but he infuses the role with a vitality which recreates Lenny's charm, wit and concern. Making the transition to convincing desperation when he is finally convicted of obscenity charges proves difficult for the ebullient actor, but he recovers his depth of characterization as Bruce's degradation increases.
Around Franken's Lenny, the rest of the company scintillates--show people, his Aunt Mema, judges, cops, and cartoon fantasies of Bruce's fertile mind. Coy, but too deadpan when she first appears, Shelley Thompson develops her role as Lenny's wife so that we hear the crack in her voice at the end as real distress. Ms. Thompson's aplomb in playing most of Act I in tassled pasties and G string was part of the Brucian sophistication of the whole production--a self-confidence unusual on a Harvard stage. With the same sharp style that Franken displays as he switches accents in spinning out dialogue, the other members of the cast play their assorted roles. Louise Claps condenses single, clear emotions in her parts which range from Bruce's comfortable aunt to a prison matron. Sue Brown moves from stripper to 1950's sweetheart to prim court reporter. Handicapped with a lesser variety among their bit parts, the men were adequate; Perry Emerson, who had the most opportunity for diversity, welched on his challenge by playing all his parts alike.
THE SKILL of the director and his staff explodes on the stage with all the pyrotechnics of Lenny Bruce's imagination For the long period she had to consider--the Korean war to 1966--Jan Stauffer designed costumes both appropriate and stylish for the respective scenes. Kevin Benjamin made his functional platform set a fantastic construction slopping and painting the platforms and adding a fifteen foot obelisk. The yellow vertical is used to delightful advantage in two of Lenny's elaborate company scenes. Christ and Moses appear at the top in one scene, staring solemnly in the luminous aura at the bishop of St. Paul's in full vestments, fighting off lepers and bagging for a new car. In the dream court room scene--Lenny's defense as he would like it--the rudge sits like a baby on the tall dais, giant gavel in hand and judicial robe falling like a black christening gown the length of the form. The church and courtroom farces are samples of the excitement Victor Budnick projects with his direction. Maintaining a rapid pace, Budnick sets one character group against another so that scenes expand and pop like a string of soap bubbles. The lighting cues are slightly off and the low-lighted scenes too dim, but these slips do not undercut the production's exuberance.
Opulent, colorful, polished, Dunster's production of Lenny enmeshes us in the jokes, the faces, the accents. As much as it is a projection of Lenny Bruce's mind, the show is a reflection of the world that crushed him. At the end, the hard blade gleams like the point of one of Bruce's jokes. It is easy to become so caught up in the laughter, the artifice of Lenny sauntering from stage to bedroom, that the real courtroom scene of his last indictment stands in harsh contrast. Despite the sinister tone of this scene and the ones that follow, we are not prepared to see Bruce splayed out naked...dead, on a toilet seat by a news photographer and some cops. Bruce's end becomes one more expression of his message and one more example, as the photographer reaches for a towel to cover Bruce for decency's sake, of the trouble he saw.