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Kosher Profanity

Lenny Bruce almightily pissed at CAST


He was notorious for speaking his mind, pugnacious in standing up for his First Amendment rights. When comedian Lenny Bruce died in 1966 from a drug overdose at the age of 40, he was also virtually bankrupt. That's what happens when you pay your dues -- and everyone else's in the comedy biz for decades to come.

New York Gov. George Pataki pardoned Bruce last December for his 1964 obscenity conviction. "Right now, he is smiling from comic heaven," declared Bruce's daughter, Kitty Bruce. Onstage at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST), however, a resurrected Bruce remains defiant and unrepentant -- and mightily pissed -- in Lenny's Back.

Keeping to their "experiential theatre" mission at CAST, director Michael Simmons and his crew have made over the entire place at 1118 Clement Avenue to emphasize two wildly divergent aspects of Bruce's character -- his Jewish roots and the seedy nightclub scene that provided his livelihood. The foyer is themed to evoke a Jewish funeral parlor: flowers and wreaths, stars of David, a "Shalom" sign over the ticket window, and a condolence book where you can inscribe your sympathies.

Inside near the bar, one of the two performing spaces has been transformed into a nightclub with cocktail tables near the foot of the stage and benches at the back of the room. Around the 8pm starting time, a pre-show starts up at the makeshift club, presenting a potpourri of aspiring local comedians, plus a young Norah Jones impersonator and a guy in leather who raspily answers to the name of poet Charles Bukowski. Amid the talent show, we're introduced to two women who figure prominently in Bruce's life -- his mother, Sally Marr, and his wife, Honey Harlow. Both of them were club performers, and both will reappear during Bruce's monologue. So will the three-piece Mons Venera band, dressed up as dead Chasidic rabbis.

You'll wait about 35 minutes until you're ushered into the main theater and given a stone to lay on Lenny's tombstone. The stand-up who stood up against censorship makes a flamboyant entrance, emerging from a flamed pink hearse amid a cloud of smoke. More than a couple of things are sticking in his craw. For one thing, why is the hippest guy on earth buried here in the bleeping San Fernando Valley? Couldn't they find a rabbi to perform the funeral service who knew that his name was Lenny and not Lionel? And that Hollywood film they made of his life! Should have had a happy ending.

Early in the monologue, lovingly researched and crafted by Sam Bobrick and Julie Stein, we learn that the resurrected Bruce isn't allowed to do his own comedy material. An entrepreneur snapped up the rights shortly after Bruce died, so, again, the trailblazing comedian doesn't reap the rewards of his own labor.

Allan Todd plays Lenny. Cigarette in hand, he looks strangely like a limo driver on break. With slightly more than 70 minutes of monologue to memorize, sometimes skipping capriciously back and forth between subjects, Todd never sustains the pace or nervous energy we remember from Bruce. Or the vocal variety. Or the full improvisatory freedom.

But there's a restlessness to the man as he moves among the five living mannequins who represent his graveyard neighbors -- and an obsessive quality in the somewhat repetitive cadence of Todd's delivery. We hear about Lenny's childhood, his oddly matched parents, and his striking off on his own before he finished high school. We learn about his marriage to stripper Honey Harlow, a mismatch every bit as odd as his own parents', and we learn about how drugs owned him. Because there was so much pain and needless suffering in Bruce's life -- some of it brought on by weakness but more of it stemming from his inner strength and conviction -- it's curiously affirming to hear him speak about it with a sharp sense of humor intact.

There's also a spontaneous rapport between Todd and the band of dead rabbis as they musically punctuate the monologue. Once again, the ambience is half nightclub, particularly when Lenny briefly picks up a mic and sings to his beloved Honey.

Simmons is guilty of excess in stretching a 70-minute solo performance to over two hours of experiential theatre. But he also expands the amount of pertinent atmosphere and data that we find ourselves mulling over at evening's end.

We've had some fearfully twisted crackpots in our history. America has also provided more than its share of inspired eccentrics. You can count the profane Lenny Bruce among them.

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra came in from the great outdoors last week to finish off its regular season at Belk Theater with their long-awaited Galway Plays Mozart concert. Sartorially, Sir James was well worth waiting for. Flourishing his famed golden flute, Galway sported matching golden shamrock cufflinks, a creamy gold vest and handkerchief, a silky black embossed tux jacket, and a gleaming doodad hanging from his neck that reminded me of a mayor dressed up for a parade. Or a pompous wine steward.Alas, the playing wasn't always of the purest vintage. A nasty intonation problem afflicted Galway's opening solo on his first long held note in the allegro aperto of Wolfgang's Flute Concerto #2, and some scruffy articulation intruded further on. By the time we reached the cadenzas, the superstar's dexterity and breath control were duly impressive, and the lead-out cadenza was thrilling in its pace and fullness.

Dispensing with the usual coyness of guest soloists -- and the arduous coaxing from the audience -- Galway announced three encores upon his second return to the stage. The Irish fare, particularly his "Danny Boy," was soulful and heavenly. So it was a bit of a letdown when Sir James closed with the finale from Bach's Orchestral Suite #2. Grace and momentum were shamelessly sacrificed for breakneck speed.

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