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Jason Fisher as Lenny Bruce
Photo © Doug Kuntz
Jason Fisher does a mean Lenny Bruce impression: He smokes his cigarette as if he cannot be bothered, or doesn't have the strength, to hold it straight in his mouth. He walks with a stiff back in a way that seems too studied at first but seems more organic as the show progresses. It's been said that Lenny Bruce delivered his comedy as a jazz musician plays a saxophone, with speed, improvisation, and free association. Sometimes, he would surprise himself with something that he said during an act and start to laugh. Fisher imitates this and other details to the letter in his one-man show Lenny His Own Words.

Bruce died in 1966 at the age of 39, and he has been the subject of numerous theatrical treatments in the intervening four decades. Whereas the 1971 Broadway show Lenny and the even more-celebrated 1974 film version delved into the artist's life and career, this 90-minute Off-Broadway tribute is essentially the act of a very skilled imitator. Still, for younger audiences, the show is a great introduction to a hilarious satirist who continues to be a free speech icon. Fisher performs many of the classic routines -- including "Religions, Inc.," "Christ and Moses," and "Hitler and MCA" -- that resulted in Bruce being repeatedly incarcerated, made sure that he was blacklisted from "respectable" comedy clubs, and caused a public uproar that destroyed his career.

Of course, Bruce's dirty-mouthed brand of comedy isn't nearly as shocking or dangerous now as it was back then. Nobody's going to break into the Zipper Theatre to arrest Fisher on obscenity charges. The use of racial epithets to take the sting away from those very words is familiar to anybody who's listened to music in the last 20 years; denunciations of religious hypocrisy are pretty commonplace in stand-up comedy today; and sex-themed humor is a staple of even family-friendly sitcoms. But if you think Bruce is no longer relevant, you haven't been watching the news lately: The government openly acknowledges and defends spying on citizens without warrants, leaked FBI memos ridiculously warn of "radical militant librarians," and so on. The advancements that Bruce and his fellow travelers made are under attack, and this show is a potent reminder of a suppressive atmosphere that many would like to see return.

Although Lenny His Own Words consists entirely of Bruce's material, Joan Worth and Alan Sacks are credited as the writers. They're also the directors, but they've clearly taken the path of least resistance in that arena. There's very little staging in this show, except for one scene when the lights flicker off to indicate that cops have arrived; when the lights come back up, time has passed and we discover that Bruce has been busted for obscenity, yet Fisher seems barely more tired and distressed than he looked before.

While Fisher is undeniably talented, this show would have been more rewarding if it offered more insights about Bruce's life and persona. If there were as many good Lenny Bruce impersonators as there are Elvis Presley impersonators, we would probably have a more informed populace.

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