Around The Town

The People vs. Lenny Bruce

By: Alix Cohen

October 6, 2023: Attorney Martin Garbus has argued cases involving first amendment, constitutional, criminal, copyright and intellectual property law. Among his impressive list of past clients are Daniel Ellsberg, Don Imus, Nelson Mandela, Andrei Sakhavov, Vaclav Havel, Ceasar Chavez, Allen Ginsberg, and Lenny Bruce.

By: Alix Cohen

October 6, 2023: Attorney Martin Garbus has argued cases involving first amendment, constitutional, criminal, copyright and intellectual property law. Among his impressive list of past clients are Daniel Ellsberg, Don Imus, Nelson Mandela, Andrei Sakhavov, Vaclav Havel, Ceasar Chavez, Allen Ginsberg, and Lenny Bruce.

This is Susan Charlotte’s fourth theatrical adaptation of his cases under the umbrella title “All The Court’s a Stage,” after Shakespeare: All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players;/They have their exits and their entrances;/And one man in his time plays many parts,/His acts being seven ages... Garbus’s book Ready for the Defense(Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1971), his upcoming memoir, and conversations with the attorney provided source material. The play contains actual trial transcript, discussion between Garbus and his client, recollection of Bruce’s behavior, personal reflections, and the attorney’s growing respect for and attachment to the defendant. Charlotte has added conjecture that fits like a puzzle piece and engineered flow.

March 1964, undercover detective Herbert Ruhe was in the audience at Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village where Lenny Bruce was appearing for $3500 a week. The venue was known to host celebrated talent. Bruce would’ve disdained “undercover.” He had a habit of goading obvious police. There to ascertain probable obscenity charges, Ruhe not only took down terms he considered repugnant but added his own editorial comments.

Lenny Bruce arrested 1964 (Public Domain)

Bruce had been taken into custody many times before. His biting, idealistic satire erupted with few boundaries. Feeling New York might be more liberal, the performer included standards that lead to earlier arrests. Both Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy were mentioned. “Pissing in the Sink,” actually an innocent tale, was later quoted in court. Words like “motherfucker,” “cocksucker,” and “come-to come” would be used like bullets by prosecution.

April 3, the comedian was detained by plain clothes officers before his 10 p.m. show. Also held were club owners Howard and Elly Solomon. The charge was “obscene, indecent, immoral, and impure play, exhibition and entertainment” – a possible three year sentence. Poet Allen Ginsberg immediately formed the Emergency Committee Against Harassment of Lenny Bruce joined by hundreds of prominent writers, actors, educators, and critics.

The accused hired first amendment attorney Ephraim London who telephoned young associate (and Bruce fan) Martin Garbus, apparently the night before the comic’s arraignment. Garbus would be second chair. He was thrilled. “The charge was a misdemeanor addressed in front of three judges, no jury,” he says, perhaps assuming an easy ride.

THE PLAY

“I wonder how many of you have pissed in the sink?” asks Garbus (Zach Grenier) in his additional role as narrator. Bruce (Alex Purcell) attempts to deliver the “bit” from which this is quoted. Throughout court proceedings, the comic stresses that context and appropriate delivery are necessary to understand intention, but is prevented from performing his act in court. “How do you police creativity?” he exclaims, exasperated.

Grenier brings both gravitas and compassion to the role. We perceive patience and restraint despite firm belief that Bruce is getting shafted by conservative, ill informed “justices.” Purcell is marvelous. The actor offers credible accent, physical attitude, and adroit timing with monologues. He’s palpably frustrated, exhausted and, against obvious odds, hopeful; performance moving.

On the stand, key witness Ruhe (Michael Citriniti) presents excerpts from Bruce’s act – monotone, without frame of reference, and evidently changing some language. “Putz,” Bruce mutters from the sideline. “I assume that’s a liberal, leftist term,” the detective snaps. Shortly thereafter, when Ruhe wildly mispronounces “meshuga”, Bruce explains the term. Garbus notes “the judge is suddenly interested.” His observations add color and humanity to the play.

Prosecutor Richard Kuh (Larry Pine) encourages Ruhe to describe masturbatory gestures ostensibly made by Bruce onstage. It falls on deaf ears that not only does Bruce deny the actions (he’s frankly too smart to take the risk), but several others present at the time declare these never occurred. Citriniti and Pine are aptly infuriating. The  playwright chooses three pivotal witnesses to exemplify the case.

Columnist, radio, and TV personality Dorothy Kilgallen (Penny Fuller), referred to as “a spokesperson for the most prudish elements in the entertainment world” in fact, defends Bruce. “He’s trying to stimulate his audience and make them think.” Her unflappables testimony – even when the word “motherfucker” is used in obvious attempt to shock – surprise Kuh, and brings Bruce to the edge of his seat. Fuller is ladylike, precise and real-time thoughtful.

Cartoonist/playwright Jules Feiffer (Bob Dishy) says Bruce “gets to the core of what the American experience is today…He’s brilliant…People like Bruce, Sahl (Mort Sahl), Nichols and May (Mike Nichols and Elaine May) are desperately needed.” Kuh provocatively asks whether Feiffer ever felt it necessary to use the objectionable words in his own work. Feiffer replies, “The newspaper never would have let me. I knew better.” Response cuts the prosecutor off at the knees. Judges remain oblivious. The character is smart, soft spoken and modest in Dishy’s hands; a gem like performance.

The third witness is Presbyterian Minister Forrest Johnson (Tony Roberts) who happened to be at the performance in question. “I think he was talking about the cheapening of religion,” he says referring to a section of the monologue. “Many of us thought the film The Ten Commandments was obscene in that way…” Nothing in Bruce’s act offended the pastor. Johnson uses his eight year-old granddaughter as an example of context. “Might  someone understand the word `motherfucker’ as having to do with mothers and fucking?” Kuh persists. Roberts presents the character as not understanding what all the fuss is about. It works.

Among those not represented onstage but also in public support were Village Voice critic Herbert Gans and two professors of comparative literature at Columbia University who noted Bruce followed the tradition of Swift and Rabelais. The performer was treated for pleurisy and exited the hospital even more debilitated. At this point in his life, health issues and emotional challenges had taken their toll. Columbia University English professor Albert Goldman said, “…his obscenity had begun to resemble the twitching of a damaged muscle.” We see him broken, singing to himself, muttering about the loss of his wife, yet faculties in court remained clear.

Unable to work without a (positive) verdict, Bruce pleaded to be sentenced, but was kept in the lurch 99 days. Bob Dylan, James Baldwin, and William Styron were among those who wrote in his support. The comic fired his attorneys and sued the magistrates. Kuh asked for imprisonment. Bruce was sentenced to four months in the workhouse. Free on bond, he never got there, dying of an overdose August 1966. In 1970, the court reversed Solomon’s conviction, then Bruce’s. None of this would’ve occurred today or would it?

With little rehearsal, Antony Marsellis, director of the series and resident director at FFTP has drawn fine characterizations from his veteran cast. You hardly notice they’re referring to scripts.

There are regulars in the series. Zach Grenier plays the Narrator (based on Martin Garbus) in each show.  Larry Pine has played prosecutors, the role of Deputy Chief/NYPD, etc. Michael Citriniti has also played various roles. All others in this cast stepped in.

Deft editing, interjections by Bruce, and editorial comments by Garbus (some written, others perceptive speculation) help playwright Susan Charlotte integrate history, law, justice, and theater. Testimonies are sharp, sometimes droll and always relevant; the chronicle infuriating and ultimately poignant. Both lead characters are well drawn. That Bruce is not overweight and physically failing as he was at the time does nothing to keep us from his side. A beautifully written play, all the more timely for our current censoring of books and media. With any luck, there will be further opportunity to see it.

Photograph courtesy of the production. Left to right: Alex Purcell, Michael Citriniti, Zach Grenier, Bob Dishy, Playwright Susan Charlotte, Penny Fuller, Tony Roberts

Food for Thought Productions presents
The People vs. Lenny Bruce
The Fourth Segment Of “All The Court’s A Stage” A Series Of One-Act Plays That Are Based On Seven of Martin Garbus‘s Law Cases
Dramatic Adaptation by Susan Charlotte of The 1964 Obscenity Case
Directed By Antony Marsellis

Food for Thought Productions was created by award-winning playwright Susan Charlotte to provide a home for the oft-neglected one-act play. Now in its 23rd year, FFTP has presented over a thousand shows with Oscar, Tony and Emmy award winning writers, actors and directors including Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Elaine May, Elaine Stritch, Judd Hirsch, Eric Stoltz, Marian Seldes, Danny Aiello, Kathleen Turner, Christine Baranski and more. Beginning with this production, FFTP will present shows at 3 West Club with optional buffet lunches at minimal additional cost.

For information and tickets contact FFTP at: 646-366-9340 or email:  info@foodforthoughtproductions.com