Icons of the Fifties–Bruce and Holliday

On successive nights I saw shows about two entertainment icons of the 1950s. Neither quite worked, but seeing them in succession triggered a few thoughts.

I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce is by Ronnie Marmo and features him as the groundbreaking comic, and Smart Blonde by Willy Holtzman is a 90-minute survey of the life of Judy Holliday. What struck me about them is they were both Jewish entertainers who changed their names (from Schneider and Tuvim, respectively), came into conflict with toxic aspects of American society and died young. (Bruce died at 41 in 1966; Holliday died at 43 in 1965.) Bruce had famous battles with law enforcement who kept tossing him into jail for his use of what were then deemed obscenities in his act. Holliday had a scary run-in with the House Committee on Un-America Activities (HUAC) that threatened to damage her career.

Smart Blonde is a bit more effective because, though sketchy, the script makes some attempt to provide a context for her political troubles. I have a hunch, though, that someone not already familiar with Bruce’s story would be puzzled by I’m Not a Comedian and would wonder why this guy was supposed to be a big deal. Marmo does a solid job performing some of the better-known routines, but the society he was rebelling against is barely characterized. Julian Berry’s play Lenny and the film Bob Fosse derived from it surrounded Bruce with representations of the people and the institutions he was challenging. Without something to dramatize the repression he battled, Bruce in Marmo’s play is turned into a shadow-boxer, throwing punches but not connecting with much.

The best part about Smart Blonde is watching Andréa Burns evoke something of the spirit of Judy Holliday. It’s not exactly an impersonation, but it is close enough to provide some of the pleasures those of us who grew with Holliday remember. My Google search offered news that a film version is in the works that would star Annaleigh Ashford, and I bet she’ll be swell, too. Onstage, all the supporting characters are played by three people calling themselves but rarely having the time or material to evoke figures like Harry Cohn, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Leonard Bernstein and Gerry Mulligan. Presumably the screen will handle this better.

About dgsweet

I write for and about theater. I spent a number of years as a resident playwright of a theater in Chicago which put up 14 of my plays, and I still think of Chicago as my primary theatrical home, though I actually live in New York. I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. Between plays, I write books, most notably SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (about Second City), THE O'NEILL (about the O'Neill Center) and THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT (a text on playwriting craft). I also occasionally perform a solo show called YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE. I enjoy visiting theaters outside of New York. I can be reached at dgsweet@aol.com.
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