If “Sally Marr … and Her Escorts” enjoys any extended life at the box office — and, who knows, stranger things have happened — the reason will not be Sally Marr, whose sad, rowdy life has been turned into pathetic, movie-of-the-week storytelling. It will be Joan Rivers, who musters every ounce of her considerable comedic flamboyance to make the case that Lenny Bruce’s mother is funnier and more interesting than Lenny Bruce.
The raw material of the playcomes from Marr herself, who spoke with Rivers and her late husband, Edgar Rosenberg, over the course of several years, the program notes. Those reminiscences have been reshaped by Rivers and two collaborators, Erin Sanders and director Lonny Price, into what amounts to a tell-all that may well tell more than anyone wants to know about Marr.
Rivers makes her entrance dragging a portable movie screen (you remember — metallic blue canister, yellow tripod feet) down the aisle, a big gold bag in one hand, dressed in a loudish blue shmatte and gold shoes. The stage has been transformed into one end of a school gym, where Sally teaches a course in standup comedy, though not before dabbing perfume on her stockinged feet as she changes into sandals. “If you’re really serious about comedy,” she exhorts a pretty, unseen student, “you should change your nose. Back.”
For a few minutes, the one-liners come fast and furious; they’re perfectly timed, and it will come as no surprise that Rivers delivers them with the perfect caustic yet self-deprecating zing.
Soon enough, however, the show devolves from “comedy comes from pain” aphorisms into a memoir that is by turns lurid (at 82, Marr has been raped at home by an intruder apparently moved to sexual violence only after finding out who she was) and sentimental (recalling her adored father, a bootlegger). Much of the action spins out from a hospital room where she is recovering from the attack, though Wendall Harrington’s projections help in telling us which stop we’re at along Marr’s life tour in any given moment.
By 17, eager to escape an abusive mother, she has married her first sweetheart, only to be instantly abandoned. Alone with the newborn Lenny, Sally will do anything to survive, and soon she’s working crummy joints and developing an unladylike style of humor that gets her fired but which literally becomes the credo — “words are just words” — her son will ride to fame. First, however, she insists on a bar mitzvah for her son, and Act 1 ends with the memorable image of the unseen Lenny’s celebration in a burlesque hall, a pink tasseled bra cup for a yarmulke.
By Act 2, Sally is working USO shows trying to track Lenny down. When she finally does, and despite her protestations — “Show business is disgusting, humiliating, degrading,” she warns. “I love it, but it’s not for you.” — they start working together. Predictably, Lenny gets signed by William Morris and his mother is left watching from the sidelines as he gets swept up by stardom, controversy and drugs.
That jagged story — the one told unforgettably on Broadway in the 1971 “Lenny” and in the film version three years later — here becomes secondary, and the play never recovers from the flip-flop.
The three “escorts” of the title are a woman and two men who play various roles, one of them Bruce, though he is heard, for the most part, in snippets of the real thing. There is also a nice onstage quartet to provide some atmospheric music. Nevertheless, the production looks as perfunctory as Price’s direction, and it’s cold, as well.
“Sally Marr … and Her Escorts” recalls “The Big Love,” a flop three seasons back in which Tracey Ullman played the mother of Errol Flynn’s teenage lover. The font of Bruce’s humor, Marr is far more interesting than Florence Aadland was, and Rivers plays the role with endearing conviction and humor. But if “Lenny” was a psychedelic tragedy, “Sally Marr” is something more mundane, a survivor’s tale whose narrative never transcends the tawdry details of a character to whom life happened — rather than,as with her son, the other way around.