“Nobody can do me like I do me,” whines Lenny Bruce in this biopic on the 60s shock comedian. It s 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 Barry s play.
But still, it seems a funny thing to include as it s 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 performer s 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.
It s no real surprise that Izzard handles the gig scenes so deftly, but his ability to navigate Bruce s 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 Bruce s wife, whose beauty doesn t compensate for a wooden performance), this is Izzard s show.
But let s not forget that there are two comedians here. It s 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 “it s 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 Hall s production is highly respectful of Bruce and we re 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 Dudley s 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 man s, cat s and daddy s - 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, he s outstanding. Let s hope he graces us with his acting talent more frequently in the future.