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Theatre in Review: The Thanksgiving Play/I'm Not a Comedian...I'm Lenny Bruce

Margo Seibert, Jennifer Bareilles. Photo: Joan Marcus. Bottom: Ronnie Marmo. Photo: Doren Sorell.

Two new productions put one in mind of the perishable quality of satire. For example, Larissa FastHorse's farce The Thanksgiving Play, now at Playwrights Horizons, is so packed with up-to-the-minute laughs that, watching it, I half-wondered if the script had been completed that afternoon. Her premise is studded with pitfalls, each of which she sidesteps with gleefully inventive humor. Logan, a high school drama teacher, having gotten together a package of money from various grant-giving bodies, is producing an educational drama for grade-schoolers about the first Thanksgiving. (Among her sponsors, she says, are "the Gender Equity in History Grant, the Excellence in Educational Theater Fellowship, a municipal arts grant, and the Go! Girls! Scholastic Leadership Mentorship." And let's not forget the "Native American Heritage Month Awareness Through Art Grant.") The subject matter is a tough sell for Logan -- who is deadly serious about each of her beliefs -- and, good vegan that she is, says, "I already struggle with the holiday of death." Then again, she is much in need of redemption following a recent debacle, shut down by outraged members of the community. "The Iceman Cometh was made so much more relevant with fifteen-year-olds," says a colleague. "Three hundred parents disagree," she replies, unhappily.

Joining Logan in the creation of this "fully devised" piece is her boyfriend, Jaxton, an "actor slash yoga dude" whose street performances are the toast of the local farmer's market. ("I have a day job, but that's not what's important in the story of me," he says.) To stay professional, they practice a decoupling ceremony before rehearsals. Also on board are two new hires: Caden, a smiling, schlubby history teacher and author of a daunting stack of unproduced plays, and Alicia, an airheaded professional actress from Los Angeles, who proudly notes that she was "third understudy for Jasmine" at Disneyland's Aladdin show. Having seen one of Alicia's "ethnic" headshots -- "My look is super-flexible," she boasts -- Logan has hired her under the mistaken impression that she is Native American, and when the truth comes out, so does the dispiriting fact that "four white people can't do a play about Thanksgiving that doesn't piss off the funders or the parents or the universe."

But forge ahead they do, with one improvisation after another ending in comic calamity, and many little dramas unfolding among the participants. Logan's attempts at creating something uplifting and politically empowering are constantly undercut by Caden's knowledge of the dire facts of Pilgrim-Native American relations. (One acting exercise ends with Caden and Jaxton toting a pair of severed heads, sending Logan into near apoplexy.) There are moments of sort-of insight, too: After listening to Alicia's explanation of the importance of simplicity -- the one quality at which she is a genius -- Jaxton says, "You are blowing my mind. Seriously. Mind blown." "No one's ever said that to me before when I had my clothes on," replies Alicia.

This is yet another comedy to benefit from the directorial touch of Moritz von Stuelpnagel, who has assembled a quartet of actors perfectly in synch with FastHorse's faultless ear for fatuous speech. As Logan, Jennifer Bareilles effortlessly delivers such mouthfuls as "I want to lift up the acknowledgement that although my sensitivity about the slaughter of millions of animals, including forty-five million turkeys, is valid, I am conscious of not allowing my personal issues to take up more space in the room than the justified anger of the Native people around this idea of Thanksgiving in our post-colonial society." Greg Keller's excruciatingly woke Jaxton is endearing, even when giving Logan a first-day-of-rehearsal present of a water bottle "made with recycled glass from broken windows in housing projects." Jeffrey Bean's Caden is a first-class kibitzer who yearns after Alicia and turns dictatorial when unveiling his own Thanksgiving play; his attempt at assuming the lotus position is a nifty bit of physical comedy. Margo Seibert is a riot as Alicia, whether saucily flipping her hair before assuming the role of a Pilgrim maid, giving lessons to the others in doing nothing, or breezily missing the point of any conversation. Offering her a little advice about not trading on one's looks, Logan says, "You certainly should never feel pressed like it's a commodity." "Not unless I'm getting something good for it," Alicia says.

The production design is unusually witty. Wilson Chin's classroom set is dotted with posters from Logan's earlier triumphs, including school productions of Angels in America and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Isabella Byrd's lighting contrasts sunlight flooding in from the stage right windows with the fluorescent classroom illumination. Among other things, Tilly Grimes' costumes neatly contrast Logan's glamour-free, all-business rehearsal clothes with Alicia's frilly, layered ensemble. (Note, also, the coiffure makeover that Alicia gives Logan, with less-than-enchanting results.) Mikaal Sulaiman's sound design includes piano accompaniment for the entertainingly awful Thanksgiving-themed musical numbers that are occasionally interpolated into the action.

Not absolutely everything works: An opening number that rewrites "The Twelve Days of Christmas" into "The Nine Days of Thanksgiving" falls flat, an occasional gag misfires, and a moment of unbridled chaos feels a little forced. But FastHorse is a find; this is one of the merriest hit jobs to come our way in some time -- this includes a show-stopping gag about dramaturges -- and it is executed with a surprising lack of malice. The Thanksgiving Play --which doesn't overstay its welcome, even for a second --is a living hell for her characters, but a holiday for the audience.

In contrast, I'm Not a Comedian...I'm Lenny Bruce revisits the career of another generation's chief satirist, providing only a reminder that Bruce's heyday was a long, long time ago, and yesterday's shock artist is today's featured act on Comedy Central. Frankly, Ronnie Marmo's solo show isn't all that interested in humor. The latest entry in the genre I think of as Dead Celebrity Playhouse, it begins with the comedian sitting, naked, on a toilet, having expired from a drug overdose. Coming back to life, he gives us his side of the story -- which is, basically, the tale of Saint Lenny, the anti-hypocrite who died for our sins.

If, like me, you grew up steeped in Lenny Bruce -- the great transgressive star of my youth -- having heard the recordings, read any biography, or seen Bob Fosse's Lenny or the documentary Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth, you won't learn anything new here. This is the standard story of the nervous schlub whose career skyrocketed when he reinvented himself as a truth-telling hipster, savaging the little white lies of mid-century American mores. You'll learn about his irrepressible mother, the sometime comic Sally Marr, his tumultuous marriage to the stripper Honey, and his much-loved daughter Kitty. Most of his greatest bits are retailed here, along with plenty of detail about his accelerating drug use and legal woes, which combined to bring him down at the age of 41. It's a depressing tale, told here faithfully but with little flair.

What's most surprising is the flatness of the comedy sequences -- for which, I think, there are two reasons. Bruce's persona was that of a naughty schoolboy crossed with a jazz hipster, a totally unfiltered presence drawing the audience into his wicked little world by spitting out one oddball riff after another. Marmo, who also stars, is overemphatic, heavy-handed -- a character out of a Martin Scorsese picture trying to crack wise; whatever he is, it isn't Lenny Bruce. The second reason can be laid at the feet of Father Time: Bruce's most notorious routines -- the ones using racial epithets and sexually explicit gags -- have been drained of their juice by everyone from Archie Bunker to Amy Schumer. Marmo works hard at making the audience uncomfortable with taboo-breaking gags, but the taboos are those of the Eisenhower era. Funnily enough, a YouTube video of Bruce on the Steve Allen Show is still loaded with laughs, suggesting that his most lasting work was done within network parameters. Some of his most "daring" bits are embarrassingly retrograde: Complaining about Honey, he says, "Sometimes I wish she were dead -- but it'd probably take her two hours to get ready." For a second there, I wondered if the show's real title was "I'm Not a Comedian...I'm Alan King."

Joe Mantegna has directed in a manner that is determined to drive home The Importance of Being Lenny, an approach that doesn't do this material any favors. Matt Richter's lighting creates a series of looks for the past, the present, and various emotional states, an approach that results in a wearying multiplicity of lighting cues. Hope Bello LaRoux's sound design is on the loud side for the Cutting Room, where the show is playing, but it includes all sorts of evocative effects, including jazz music, audience laughter, the terrifying car crash that nearly killed the Bruces, and voiceover dialogues. The word for this one is unnecessary: Bruce fans will find little of interest in a show that probably can't explain to younger generations what made the comedian so remarkable. Sadly, so much humor has a short shelf life; time, and shows like this, are conspiring to make Lenny Bruce into something of a square. -- David Barbour.

(6 November 2018)

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