Eddie Izzard, the British stand-up comedian, is winding up a fascinating run as the title character in "Lenny," Julian Barry's 1971 play about the corrosive American satirist Lenny Bruce. The production, directed by Sir Peter Hall, is overwrought, the script is thin, and in at least one way Izzard is all wrong for the part. Curiously, though, these very flaws conspire to make his performance deeply moving.
The play, now at the Queen's Theatre, opens in 1966 with Bruce naked and dead from a morphine overdose. He rises, dresses and then tells us of his last trial for obscenity. During the trial, which rematerializes onstage, he essentially reenacts his life for the court.
The structure is clever. Maybe too clever. You get no sense of Bruce's life beyond his own view of it. Or rather, the playwright's view. "Lenny" tries to retrofit Bruce for the mantle of Doomed Social Crusader, a man bent on teaching his fellow Americans a lesson about their many hypocrisies.
Working off of William Dudley's overly paneled and mirrored set, Hall further loads the production with back-projections and offstage chanting, not to mention enough frontal nudity and simulated sex to run the risk of its being labeled a peep show. None of which, however, reflects anything about Bruce or the ugly world that produced him.
Hall accepts Barry's revisionist view of Bruce, but Bruce never thought of himself as a crusader. He didn't even think of himself as a comedian. He was a haunted, driven man, cursed with an awful childhood and a perpetual sense of being an outsider in a world that pretended to be inclusive. It's more accurate to say his scathingly obscene routines were his revenge on a hypocritical society, not his attempt to "free" or "educate" it: His punch lines were always bare-knuckled and meant for the bridge of the audience's nose.
As a comedian, Izzard emanates charm. Similarly, Dustin Hoffman's instinct as an actor is to ingratiate himself with an audience, which is why his Bruce in Bob Fosse's film never worked. But unlike Hoffman, Izzard does stand-up for a living and knows the ambivalence that resides in the soul of every serious comic: the desire to make a point vs. the desire for applause--i.e., approval.
More to the point, Izzard is also an outsider. Among today's comedians obscene language is commonplace (thanks in large part to Bruce, who "died for our sins," as Eric Bogosian has put it). But men dressing as women still isn't, as Izzard can attest from the number of times he's been assaulted: He dresses in drag both onstage and off. Some of Izzard's stand-up bits are benign, but others have the distinct feel of someone who resents his need for appreciative laughs from an audience he secretly despises.
That resentment is what drives his performance as Bruce. Izzard reveals the emotion gradually, first as it's directed at the audience, and then eventually at himself as it degenerates into despair and self-loathing. The one good thing about the script is it allows Izzard to reprise several of Bruce's best routines, which he brings to vivid life by focusing on how they seemed to be the voices of inner demons.
Though the story is overrun with people who come and go, there's really only one other sustained character--Rusty, the junkie-stripper Bruce marries. She's played by Elizabeth Berkley, whose chief talent seems to be shedding her clothes and displaying her luscious body.
A fully developed biographical play might diffuse Izzard's wonderfully concentrated performance. A more muted production might distract you by encouraging you to take Barry's canonizing of Bruce more seriously (Hall's heavy hand makes that easy to ignore). And a charmless Izzard would leave you uninterested in the character as written. Bruce certainly had charm, but it was a dangerous and often threatening kind that made you extremely uncomfortable--the way a gorgeous drag queen can.
Lenny, by Julian Barry. Directed by Peter Hall. At the Queen's Theatre through. Oct. 16.