Too much of not enough

Legendary American standup Lenny Bruce became a legend not because he was flat-out funny. Listening to his recorded material today--from his famous "Lone Ranger" routine to his various tours through the ethnic hothouses of the urban landscape--reveals a rather glaring lack of imagination, especially when you compare what has survived to the rapid-fire inventiveness of Carl Reiner or Mel Brooks. Instead, Bruce's reputation rests on a foundation shared by talents as diverse as Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift--the complete fusion of personality and performance into a cracked bedrock of tragedy. Our appreciation of their work is heightened, perhaps even exaggerated, by our tendency to appreciate them for their self-destructiveness. As long as the performances of people like Bruce and Clift remain preserved in some form, they will be able to die for our sins again and again through the glamorous and satisfying catharsis of long-distance identification. Many people suspect we harbor the potential to screw up our own lives at any given point; and, upon availing ourselves of the chance, we'd love to do it as attractively as they did.

It's hard not to think that some deification is taking place in Lenny, Julian Barry's epic entanglement of the life and words of Lenny Bruce as staged at Theater Too, the small performance venue residing, not surprisingly, underneath Theater Three. It's also hard to recall a talent who would, in his short lifetime, be more resistant to such godlike treatment. Barry does a good job, however, of capturing the strident unsentimentality of the comic's work. Mostly by being a smart, discerning archivist, the playwright collects and presents in this play the Bruce monologues that best evoke a sense of the man's righteous mission to piss off as many authority figures as he possibly could.

Unfortunately, Barry's own creative emphasis is skewed toward the melodramatic, as much as he and his subject seem at war with that impulse. He drags the comic into court--much as the real-life Bruce himself was compelled to appear before magistrates again and again--and has him deliver that old dramatic chestnut: the stirring self-defense. By that time, late in the third act, you realize how much your own sympathies have been ground under the heel of the playwright's desire to turn a talented man's travails into a tragedy wrought by those twin cliches of the 1950s, repression and denial. In a way, it's true that Lenny Bruce, who rose to fame and then began his spiral descent during that decade, was trying to prepare an unwilling America for the cultural shifts of the '60s. But stretching a mind as colorful as Bruce's to fulfill that responsibility in just under two hours inevitably flattens him.

And speaking of flat, you get the sense that director Christopher Carlos, helming Lenny as the first collaboration between Actors Stock Company and The Lean Theatre, hasn't quite mastered the tricky space of Theatre Too. He has turned the room into a nightclub (an inspired decision, and one well executed by his own dim, intimate set design) and surrounded the audience with the action on three sides.

But we have to turn around in three different directions as Lenny's angry, persecuted, all-too-brief life and its cast of characters unfold. This becomes an increasing annoyance, chiefly because the tiny catwalk of a performance space that wraps around the tables makes it feel like many of the actors are delivering their performances pinned to the wall. They seem constrained, and many of their performances lack depth. At least, on the Sunday night I saw it, Theatre Too was free of the muffled live-music sounds that plague it on Friday and Saturday nights from the 8.0 above. Since the chance of a very popular watering hole moving its digs to accommodate the small theater companies that share Theatre Too seems unlikely, may I suggest reconsidering the flexibility of this particular site. In a city as desperate for performance and rehearsal space as Dallas, though, that seems as unlikely as the relocation of the 8.0.

Lenny does have a few genuinely engaging moments scattered throughout its arid, poorly paced patches of exposition. Watching Lenny (David Stroh) metamorphose at various stages of his life, from heroin-using strip-club host to master of impressions to high-paid national standup to desperately unhealthy First Amendment advocate and target of various district attorneys, is a provocative journey in itself. After a drug-addled marriage to a stripper named Honey (Yo Younger), he snatches their daughter away from his estranged wife shortly before she's jailed on drug charges, and then deposits the child in the arms of his endlessly supportive mother, Sally (Barbara Bierbier, who renders another touchingly comic Jewish mother in the tradition of her memorable yenta turn in Twilight of the Golds). His personal dramas inevitably take a backseat to his mounting legal difficulties and his paranoid obsession with criticizing Anglo-Christian complacency through ironic routines that start off describing Jews as "Christkillers" and gay men as "cocksuckers," and end up championing both as brave and authentic outsiders to a homogeneous, hypocritical suburban America.

Probably the biggest deficiency in this co-production of Lenny is the zero chemistry between Stroh and Younger. Stroh's onstage romance with Laurel Hoitsma in Actors Stock Company's previous show, Abelard and Heloise, also generated few sparks, but the actor is so passionate and focused in recreating Bruce's monologues (which, luckily, take up a large portion of the show) that I'm inclined to shift more of the blame to Yo Younger. She threatens at every turn to fade before our eyes, so broad and lackluster is her performance. Abruptly, the character does disappear midway through the play, only to reappear in the final scene to offer some uninsightful insight about her late husband to a hippie reporter. These are the kinds of irreparable holes that leave the good material in Lenny looking like a spiffy paint job used to conceal serious foundation damage.

Lenny runs through December 14. Call 871-3300.