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THEATER

Giving Lenny Bruce new life

Jason Fisher brings his singular vision to the comedian's routines.

November 10, 2005|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

IN their search for a stage actor who could play Lenny Bruce, American entertainment's quintessential martyr for free speech, producers Joan Worth and Alan Sacks could have been following battlefield orders from 1775 that helped win freedom of speech in the first place: "Don't hire until you see the whites of their eyes."

"He had those eyes, those piercing eyes. When he gets fierce, it all shows up in his eyes," Worth says. She's talking not about Lenny Bruce himself, but about Jason Fisher, the unknown actor whose job is to bring forth Bruce's outrage and satiric wit in "Lenny Bruce -- In His Own Words." The one-man show is running Saturday nights at M-Bar in Hollywood.

Worth knew Bruce well, and, truth be told, she says, Fisher's eyes are nothing like his.

Her husband, writer-producer Marvin Worth, who died in 1998, was Bruce's longtime friend and sometime manager. After Bruce's death in 1966 from an overdose of morphine, Marvin Worth acquired the rights to the stand-up comic's story and his recorded and written works. He co-produced "Lenny," the 1971 Broadway play that was adapted as a film three years later. Playing Bruce onstage earned Cliff Gorman a Tony Award for best actor. Dustin Hoffman's Oscar-nominated screen portrayal is one of his signature roles.

When Marvin Worth died, he was working with producer Hal Willner on a six-CD compilation, "Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware." It was released a year ago.

The trove of past portrayals and archival audio and video is ample, but Fisher, who heard just a smattering of Bruce's stuff while growing up in Chappaqua, N.Y., says he wants no part of it. He has kept his eyes strictly on the script that Sacks and Joan Worth cobbled together from Bruce's routines. That way, Fisher says, his imagination is free to create a fresh interpretation of Bruce and his act -- just as he was taught to conjure fresh takes on roles from Shakespeare and Chekhov while earning a graduate degree from Harvard's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training.

Until now, the New York-based Fisher had done lots of waiting on tables, as well as a few turns as an FBI agent on a soap opera, "The Guiding Light." His career highlight was being handpicked by Arthur Miller to play the playwright's alter-ego in a 1998 off-Broadway revival of "The American Clock," an account of a family in upheaval during the Great Depression.

"It was an exciting day. Miller was on his feet, saying, 'You really want to play this role, don't you? I think you should play it,' " Fisher recalled.

TWO years ago, Worth said, a conversation with Lenny Bruce's daughter, Kitty, sparked the idea of reproducing his routines as short vignettes for a cable network. She recruited Sacks, a writer-producer who partnered with actor-comedian Gabe Kaplan in creating the 1970s high school sitcom "Welcome Back, Kotter," and they decided to reanimate Bruce's material in cartoon form, with a subversive edge, a la R. Crumb or Ralph Bakshi. They found no backers, and concluded that a stage show, geared to tour in clubs, performing arts centers and campus venues, would be a better first step.

"After about three meetings where some people didn't know who Lenny Bruce was, we said, 'Let's take this into our own hands,' " Sacks said before last Saturday's performance. They opted for utmost simplicity: one actor delivering Bruce's words, framed as a single stand-up performance, but arrayed to give audiences a sense of how his ideas developed and how his career collapsed as he refused to bend under government persecution.

Bruce pushed boundaries and buttons during the 1950s and early '60s, satirizing organized religion as "Religion, Inc.," and speaking bluntly about sex and bigotry. The authorities pushed back, shutting down his shows and carting him off to jail on obscenity charges.

Fisher's portrayal of Bruce -- "a remarkable turn," wrote Times reviewer David C. Nichols -- omits the drug-addled, legally obsessed decline that Hoffman enacted in "Lenny."

But the young actor says it is crucial to show that the hellhounds on Bruce's trail, and the drug abuse alluded to during the one-man show, have taken a grievous bite out of him.

"The idea is that you meet Lenny Bruce at the top of his game, and then you see him later. He hasn't lost it, but he's tired. He's just tired," Fisher says with an empathetic sigh.

A Method actor, he says he tries to transmute the pressure he feels playing an icon into his performance of Lenny sweating under government heat as the clampdown takes hold. "I had a dream that Dustin Hoffman came to the show, and I could tell by the look in his eyes that he really didn't think it was very good. When I am going crazy, I think to myself, 'Well, these are really good words.' It helps to know, in the back of my head, that this is good material."

The script doesn't bury its beaten-down hero, but lets him stand defiant to the end. Lenny's last word is a counterpunch that lands smack in the American present:

"You must not stop the information. The information is what keeps this country strong. The war -- that's what's obscene. I'm Lenny Bruce, and that's my show."

*

'Lenny Bruce -- In His Own Words'

When: 10 p.m. Saturdays (ends Dec. 17)

Where: M-Bar, 1253 N. Vine St., Hollywood

Price: $12-$18, plus drink minimum

Info: (323) 993-3305 or www.uncabaret.com

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