The ghost of Lenny Bruce still haunts North Hollywood.
Just around the corner from the Lankershim Boulevard hobby shop where Bruce was busted for heroin in 1962, "Lenny's Back" at the American Renegade Theatre offers a thoughtful, stinging monologue from the grave.
The hobby shop, long gone, is now an upscale pizza place. Lenny Bruce, (nee Schneider) may be 35 years dead, but he's neither gone, nor gentrified. The Lenny we meet on stage is still talking dirty and influencing people. Sitting beside his grave in Eden Memorial Park Cemetery, actor Barry Pearl inhabits the role of the junkie provocateur, mellowed by eternity but not quite finished with us yet.
"You know what pisses me off? I'm the hippest guy in the world and they bury me in the [expletive] San Fernando Valley."
Yes, this is Bruce the "sick comic" -- but it's also the Jewish boy who loves his mother; the heroin addict who grieves for the daughter he left fatherless; the lover of words and husband of a stripper; the frequently jailed First Amendment advocate; and the lawyer with a fool for a client. Pearl's Bruce stalks the stage, pacing and smoking and funny, but just as natural while sitting alone at his own grave, quiet and sad.
Bruce was not the first famous Jewish comic, but he was one of the first ones to push the envelope in his choice of topics and language, with choice Yiddishims that cannot be printed in a family newspaper. (He often got arrested for obscenities in both Yiddish and English.)
"I was a very positive guy. That comes from being Jewish. Because when you're Jewish, no matter how bad it is, there's always someone around to say 'It could be worse.'"
Barred from using Bruce's actual material (an entrepreneur bought the rights within a week of the comic's 1966 heroin overdose), playwrights Sam Bobrick and Julie Stein gave Bruce his convincing voice through a year of research and interviews with acquaintances. Bobrick's long television and theater career has included writing for "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Get Smart" and the plays "Murder at The Howard Johnson's" and "Remember Me?" Stein, a former stand-up comic herself, has also worked as a researcher for documentaries.
Recently married, Bobrick and Stein's previous work together includes the parody book "Sheldon and Mrs. Levine," which they have also turned into the play "Dear Sheldon." A workshop version of "Lenny's Back," their first one-person show, opened in 1999 at New York's Studio 54.
With some help from Daniel Saks' intimate set design featuring sad-looking sculpted mannequins as fellow dead people, Barry Pearl's natural performance makes even some of Bruce's outdated language -- "It's crazy, man, dig?" -- feel new. Under Bobrick's direction, Pearl overcomes the potential awkwardness of the show's from-the-grave conceit, with an easy charm and energy.
The extensive research and personal interviews that went into the writing shine most effectively in the show's reminiscences about Bruce's mother, burlesque performer Sally Marr. Before her 1997 death, Bobrick and Stein found Marr eager to share memories of her little boy who would grow up to shock the world. Together, Bobrick, Stein and Pearl humanize an icon without flinching from the often-pathetic truth about their subject.
At the American Renegade Theatre, the American renegade comic gets to speak from the grave to prove he wasn't so obscene, just ahead of his time. "What I wouldn't give to be alive today. You can talk about [sex] on the 6 o'clock news, and no one gets arrested."
If you think you've seen all this before in the "Lenny" biopic with Dustin Hoffman, "Lenny's Back" has a few words of complaint about that, too.
"Why couldn't they give it a happy ending? Why'd I have to die at the end?"
You didn't have to Lenny, but you did. Now we all have Bobrick, Stein and Pearl to thank for bringing you back.
"Lenny's Back" produced by Theatre of Will at the American Renegade Theatre, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m. through Nov. 10. $15. For tickets, call (818) 763-1834.