Peter Hall's revival of Julian Barry's 1971 play Lenny casts Eddie Izzard, today's maestro of the improvisatory riff, in the role of Lenny Bruce, the great American Sixties stand-up who - with his groundbreaking routines about such subjects as venereal disease, white liberal double-think over race, and the difficulties of guilt-free masturbation - is venerated as the Godfather of alternative comedy.
"Why do bees make honey? Earwigs don't make chutney..." is the kind of left-field philosophical musing to which Izzard is given. The fantastical flight was a feature of Bruce's material, too, but the questions Bruce posed were considerably more uncomfortable, prowling the thin line between outraged laughter and outrage.
As demonstrated in this show, the query "Are there any niggers in the audience tonight?", followed by an appeal for the house lights to go up and a banteringly remorseless singling out of the various "yids", "niggers" and "greaseballs" present in the theatre can still induce unease, regardless of the fact that the sequence turns into a rather preachy spiel about how it's the suppression of certain words that gives them the power to hurt.
Bruce's scabrous, angry glee and the lewd, teasing insidiousness with which he goosed and jabbed at the public's prejudices don't come naturally to Izzard. Generating waves of audience goodwill, he can't help but create an endearing Lenny Bruce - and that's a bit of a contradiction in terms, like a serene Woody Allen or a magnanimous Bernard Manning.
Of course, Izzard works the house with enormous flair and whips up an infectious sense of elation as he launches into some of the wackier fantasies, such as the costumed routine about a camp Catholic cardinal and a bunch of lepers ("Get off my hem, you bitch!") which demonstrates with relish Bruce's characteristic trick of presenting all of American life as just a corrupt extension of tacky showbiz.
The darker, more driven aspects of the comedian aren't as convincingly communicated. Barry's play ricochets between examples of Bruce's developing nightclub act and episodes from his life, including his marriage to a junkie stripper, his trial on obscenity charges and his eventual death from a heroin overdose. It presents what the police reduced Bruce to (a forgivable obsessive, desperate to prove that his risky riffs were part of some clear, cleansing moral crusade) as his essence and the primary meaning of his life. It's worth remembering how Kenneth Tynan concluded a brilliant essay on him. The critic quips that it's too portentous to call Lenny Bruce "the man on America's conscience" since he would surely describe himself as "the man who went down on America's conscience". As it simplifies Bruce into a martyr for free speech, Barry's play breaks faith with his complicatedly subversive spirit.
A none-too-nifty juggling act with jazz band, a battery of back-projections and a multiple role-playing cast, Peter Hall's production makes the play feel simultaneously sketchy and overcrowded.
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