Homesick for the Holidays
Funny men with bitter depths at the VLT and the Leebrick
by Suzi Steffen
|Paul Rhoden as Lenny Bruce
|Colin Lawrence as Crumpet
I hear it’s a coincidence that the Lord Leebrick Theatre opened David Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries (adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello) the same night that the Very Little Theatre opened Lenny Bruce Is Back (and boy is he pissed). But they’re similar: essentially one-person plays, each 75 minutes, each with a central character who’s serious and sad in the midst of a comedian’s life.
Each play also contains an actor who seems just about perfect for the role. When I saw in the press release that Paul Rhoden would play Lenny Bruce, the click of “genius casting” immediately went off in my head. Good job, director Chris McVay. (Or was this planned as a Rhoden piece? Either way, oh hell yes.)
Colin Lawrence, who’s been onstage at the UO nonstop since last year’s Big River, in which he played Tom Sawyer, also seemed like a good call for the David Sedaris elf. True, Lawrence isn’t quite shopworn enough in looks, voice or aura for Crumpet, the elf who’d prefer to be drinking, drugging and screwing his way toward the holidays. Lawrence’s youth and apparent sweetness find no foils in the stage business of co-elves Frosty (Caitlin Wikenbach) and Jingle (Jonathan Knight). The two goofy extras also provide a heroic effort before the play starts.
The set, by Steen Mitchell, features the appropriately outsized and outrageously colorful feel of a department store Santaland, with enough stuffed animals to make every kid in town happy. Those who know Sedaris’ classic well may not want to take a refresher before the play, which is different — less harsh, but also less funny — than the piece that launched Sedaris to fame on NPR’s Morning Edition in 1992 and became part of Barrel Fever.
Still, under the direction of Bobby Vrtis, Lawrence manages to make Crumpet wide-eyed though resigned to taking shitty jobs (the economy of the early 1990s was also in the crapper), and he tells one story so full of longing that people in the audience wipe away tears. But seriousness is generally subsumed under humor, as it should be for a Sedaris piece. In that spirit, others might mock you — you might mock yourself — but yes, you can wear reindeer antlers and your most horrible holiday sweater to this production; you’ll be far from alone.
I wouldn’t, however, wear the same outfit to the Very Little Theatre’s Stage Left for Lenny Bruce. Rhoden, world-weary and wry, tells an audience that only partly remembers Bruce a tale of heartbreaking need, pain and repeated rejection. Playwrights Sam Bobrick and Julie Stein spent several years working on the script. They couldn’t get permission to use Bruce’s material, so they used the hours of interviews they’d conducted to add researched depth to the show.
At the VLT, where McVay writes in his director’s note about Bruce’s place in history (as he notes, people like Richard Pryor and George Carlin would never have been able to have their careers “without Lenny’s influence and sacrifice”), the setting’s a nightclub in the cemetery where Bruce is buried. In a clear reference to Our Town, the cemetery’s got other inhabitants and Rhoden as Bruce interacts with them occasionally. Often that seems a bit silly, an attempt to play off someone other than the audience, but more successful is the live band (the Heebie Jeebies) and Brandon Rumsey’s music, especially as played on sax and clarinet by Lauren Wagner.
The difficulties here come from Bruce’s style of performing, which wasn’t scripted, which (so they say, so I can see on YouTube, having been born after he died) depended on what he was thinking about, the audience, the state of his many prosecutions for obscenity, etc. — none of which Rhoden can rely on during this show. Rhoden’s a fantastic actor in general, and he embodies Bruce well, but this isn’t an evening of connection with the audience. Instead, it’s a slow-burning, long-lasting meditation on Lenny Bruce both as a man — a friend, a partner and most heartbreakingly of all, a father and a son — and as a performer who changed everything.
I know Santaland has sold out many of its performances, and I can’t imagine that Lenny Bruce won’t too (especially as this is the final weekend!), so get your tickets soon for this reminder, at the holidays, that life mixes everything for us, that our winter holidays spangled with lights began as cries in, and often against, the dark.
Lenny Bruce Is Back runs through Dec. 12. Tix at 541-344-7751. Santaland Diaries continues through Dec. 19 (new performances have been added for Dec. 16 & 19). Tix at lordleebrick.com or 541-465-1506