If it’s possible to be simultaneously miscast and mesmerizing, Eddie Izzard manages exactly that in “Lenny,” Peter Hall’s overinflated revival of Julian Barry’s irritatingly thin and protracted 1971 Broadway play. Best known as the genial transvestite British comedian who is slowly (and deservedly) adding to his reputation overseas, the fleshy Izzard couldn’t seem further removed from the wiry edginess of the late, great and deeply American Lenny Bruce.
Izzard seems to realize as much, which is why his performance works on one essential level just as it misses by a mile in another. By play’s end, it’s doubtful that any of the inevitable hordes at the Queen’s Theater will feel much closer to the brash and bruising Bruce. What they’ll encounter instead is one comedian’s richly felt tribute to another, rather as if Izzard — speaking from across not just the grave but a fundamental divide — were honoring his late colleague for making his own profession possible.
The problem is that Lenny was fueled by anger, whereas Izzard works by febrile animation, and one can only wonder how extraordinary a talent like Robert Downey Jr. — another American artist to know a thing or two, sadly, about jail — might be in this role. Nor is one ever unaware of the tension between the subject and the star, with the result that Lenny gets accommodated to Izzard’s persona at least as much as Izzard is subsumed by Bruce. (At the start, the actor mostly resembles the sort of loose-limbed, portly bad boy who might have strayed in from “Footloose.”)
At the same time, the Briton’s clear advantage in the part is that, as a standup comedian himself, he intuitively knows the terrain, even as the accent every so often slightly slides. Give the man a mike and an audience — even an opening night heckler — and Izzard hits his stride, prompting the latest in a series of standing ovations to have left a mark on this summer’s London legit. (Perhaps it’s just that there are a lot of Americans in town.)
The routines are the raison d’etre of “Lenny,” which is the story of “a stubborn shmuck” (his mother’s phrase) who became America’s answer to Jonathan Swift. Indeed, Barry’s script wastes no hagiographic time invoking any and all comparisons, Aristophanes included, rather as if we couldn’t be trusted to see beyond words like “cocksucker,” “nigger” and “yid” to the very real moralist beneath. There’s an apposite quality, too, to the reappearance of a play about a truthteller cut short in his prime at the exact moment that Britain is fighting once again for freedom of information. As Lenny knew, negate words and you negate the truth; his was a world in which silence was the real scare.
As a drama, what information does “Lenny” impart? Nothing that hasn’t fed dozens of comparable tales of fierce and fleeting lives, with the difference that Barry’s structure is so hokey and diffuse that it starts to test our natural interest in the topic. Onscreen in Bob Fosse’s 1974 movie, sheer filmmaking savvy went some way toward shaping the material, in which Dustin Hoffman’s nervy Lenny met his distaff match in a poignant Valerie Perrine, playing his stripper wife.
But none of the play’s supporting cast — the leggy Rusty of Elizabeth Berkley, in an unexpected stage appearance, included — has much of an interest to act, beyond the most bizarre of exchanges (added for this production) to explain away the fact that Lenny, though Jewish, apparently wasn’t circumcised — or, more accurately, that the actor who here strips off numerous times in the course of playing Lenny most definitely isn’t.
Not the sort of director one might think of for this material, Hall works double time trying to grant the play some basic theatricality and to deflect attention from the prevalent “Hair”-speak that quickly grates. (“My heart hurts, man,” reports Rusty early on, “and it’s never hurt me before.”) To that end, the cast sometimes appears in masks — a Hall trademark — on William Dudley’s paneled, projection-filled set, while an onstage band ensures that Lenny’s fearless riffs aren’t the only music heard.
The whispers of “dirty, dirty, dirty” around the auditorium recall the conspiratorial noises voiced at the start of “Amadeus.” And the copious nudity includes one especially embarrassing coupling for the two leads right at the lip of the stage, which only makes one wonder how much more of Nicole Kidman might we have seen had Hall directed “The Blue Room.”
Lenny’s gift was to make the world his very own blue room, whether keeping the beat to the verb “to come” (one ofIzzard’s finest moments) or saying the unsayable about such diverse topics as Christ, chickens and Jackie Kennedy as she then was pre-Onassis. Lenny’s concerns couldn’t be more current, notwithstanding his death 33 years ago at almost the same time as that of a true British kindred spirit, Joe Orton.
Is Izzard the real McCoy? Not remotely, and yet it doesn’t matter. The production’s principal flaw is also the primary reason to see it.