Though the '60s are remembered as a time of protest and rage, that decade also saw the enshrinement of The Jewish Mother as a comic cultural icon.
Bruce Jay Friedman's "A Mother's Kisses," Mike Nichols and Elaine May's sketch about a Jewish mother upbraiding her son, a rocket scientist, for not phoning her, and ultimately Philip Roth's Sophie Portnoy all conveyed to a still largely WASP culture an image of the Jewish mother as the embodiment of claustrophobic love and hilarious self-pity. If she was capable of crippling her offspring emotionally, she was nevertheless the possessor of a sharp and caustic wit, which gave her some allure.
Probably there was a correlation between the generation that found itself in rebellion and a cultural movement that, if it left Apple Pie alone, ruthlessly attacked Mom, albeit only in a particular ethnic subdivision.
Which brings us to Sally Marr, the mother of one of the seminal iconoclasts of the '60s, Lenny Bruce. Bruce died of a heroin overdose. His mother soldiers on.
Now that insurgency has been institutionalized in the American way of life, it is hard to appreciate the courage Bruce displayed using standup comedy, which was considered a harmless diversion, as a form of social criticism. It becomes thus even more fascinating to look at Marr, who was clearly one of her son's major inspirations.
In "Sally Marr...and her escorts," which is based on interviews with Marr, Joan Rivers brings her own wit and comic skill and a ferocious energy to the portrayal of this indomitable woman.
The evening begins with Marr making her way noisily down the aisle to conduct a night-school course in standup comedy. She immediately addresses her 'students,' criticizing their audition photographs.
"If you're really serious about comedy, babe?" she tells one, "fix your nose - back."
She notes that beautiful women tend not to be comics: "Did anyone ever tell Vivien Leigh, Viv, stop, it's too much?"
It is a perfect way for Rivers to make herself at home on the stage and draw the audience into Sally Marr's world.
But this opening scene also suggests the main flaw of the evening. We are constantly left wondering which of the abundant funny lines is authentically Marr and which is Rivers? A line like "Kemo sabe is Indian for 'Pass the Vaseline'" sounds quintessentially Lenny Bruce. So it could be Marr. But it could just as easily be Rivers. You laugh hard regardless, but you wish the line between biography and standup were more carefully defined.
Three other people occupy the stage with Rivers, but they almost never speak. Director Lonny Price moves them gracefully around the stage and they occasionally give Rivers a chance to catch her breath. But, essentially, "Sally Marr" is a one-woman show.
Whatever its conceptual weaknesses, the evening is a tribute to the relentless drive of two amazing women, the actress and her subject.
Every season or so, Broadway finds itself with an oddity - something difficult to categorize. Such an oddity is Joan Rivers in "Sally Marr...and her escorts" at the Helen Hayes Theater.
It is not a one-woman show - although only-one woman does the talking (guess which one?) - nor is it strictly speaking a play, although it has a beginning, a middle, an end, and curious one-directional (no one else talks, remember?) dialogue.
As for Rivers herself, well, she is scarcely one of those rivers that run slow or deep. She has the speed of a mosquito and the depth of a face lotion. And although she is an actress - a few seasons back she did credibly and creditably in Neil Simon's "Broadway Bound" - oddly enough, here she does not appear to be acting.
This is strictly a one-on-one encounter with Joan Rivers - a Joan Rivers who, for the purposes of argument, is pretending to be the late Lenny Bruce's mother, Sally Marr. She's a little like Jackie Mason in drag.
"Sally Marr...and her escorts" has been developed by Erin Saunders, Lonny Price (the show's director) and Rivers. It is not the first play Rivers has co-authored. For her first, "Fun City" in 1971, I was stranded in a plane en route from Jamaica and missed the first night. My luck ran out when I caught up with it later, deep in its one-week run.
But that's a bit unfair. There are many admirable things about Joan Rivers, and even about this new show.
I just don't like her - and, quite unlike Bruce, the show's silent, reluctant hero, her whole act insists that you adore her. Or else. Yet her fans find her acerbically endearing; certainly her no-nonsense gusto has a real, if for me, short-lived charm.
The Playbill tells us that "Sally Marr" was inspired by "the recollections and remembrances of Marr as told to Joan Rivers and her late husband Edgar Rosenberg." It is, we are also told, "the story of a survivor." A story of pluck and heartbreak in the school of hard knocks. Remind you of anyone?
Yes, you can see why Rivers would be attracted to Sally's story, but her insistence on making it a referendum on her own personality and none-too-private life story is non-theatrical and even distasteful.
The fabric of the tale - it starts and ends in a lecture hall, and in between come flashbacks of Sally's life during her near-death experience in an emergency room - proves horribly contrived, as does the payoff borrowed from an old Preston Sturges movie.
As she encourages her comic genus son, she reminds you of Mama Rose with a lexicon-load of dirty words, or Jocasta with an ability to tell jokes standing up. Some jokes are funny, some are old, quite a few are both.
But forget Sally and Lenny. It all comes down to what, as that Playbill tells us, "Rivers is perhaps best known for" - those TV encounters starting with "her federally trademarked one-liner 'Can we talk?'" She can, and with a glinty-eyed, bruised gallantry. If you like that sort of thing.
We're approaching that time of year when theater awards are handed out left and right. So let's bestow an imaginary one right now. In the category of hardest-working actress on Broadway, the winner is -- drum roll, please -- Joan Rivers in "Sally Marr...and Her Escorts."
The play, which opened last night at the Helen Hayes Theater, purports to be the story of Sally Marr, a comic of small repute whose chief claim to show-business fame is that she is Lenny Bruce's mother. What most people will find far more interesting, however, is that the woman tearing about the stage in a wardrobe resembling an exploded salad bar is, in her more widely publicized incarnations, a finely turned-out talk-show host and the purveyor of her own line of jewelry.
Is Ms. Rivers also a great actress? No, she is not. But she is exuberant, fearless and inexhaustible. If you admire performers for taking risks, then you can't help but applaud her efforts. "Sally Marr" asks her to dig down deep and dredge up some elemental emotions. Ms. Rivers backs off from none of them. In her portrayal of a gutsy woman who has hit the skids more than once in her 80-odd years, there is a childlike sincerity that exerts its own spell in the end. Between Ms. Rivers and Ms. Marr an understanding obviously exists.
Ms. Marr, in fact, provided Ms. Rivers and her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, with the recollections and stories -- and, presumably, some of the jokes -- that are the raw material of the play. Ms. Rivers, Erin Sanders and Lonny Price, who also functions as the director, have shaped them into a glorified one-woman show that starts out in the auditorium of Our Lady of Esperanza High School, where Ms. Marr is teaching a night course titled "How to Die on Your Feet: The Art of Stand-Up Comedy." Cha-cha lessons, she informs us, lest we've come to the wrong place, are across the way, and A.A. is meeting down the hall.
The first 10 minutes, which allows Ms. Rivers to lecture the audience directly and shoot off some sure-fire one-liners, are flat-out hilarious. Talking about her boyfriend, a younger man, Sally says: "I gave him 'The Joy of Sex' for his birthday. He colored it in." (Frankly, that sounds suspiciously like vintage Rivers to me.) The play, though, intends to be more than just Vegas revisited. The tip-off comes early on, when Sally goes into her theory of comedy. "You don't start with funny and make it funnier," she explains. "Comedy comes from pain."
Lesson over, the scene switches to a hospital emergency room, and the pain comes rushing on. Battered and near death, Sally lies on an operating table. At 82, she has just been raped by a burglar. As doctors labor to keep her breathing, her life, a sorry history of hardship and holding on by the fingernails, flashes before her eyes. All the people in it -- the father she worshiped, the husband who left her, the show-biz riffraff who passed for her family and, of course, the rebellious son she defended like a tigress -- are played by the titular escorts. None speak. Moving among them, as if among ghosts, Sally does all the talking, experiences all the emotions and draws all the conclusions.
It is the play's contention that without Sally Marr, a kind of dirty-mouthed Mama Rose, there would have been no Lenny Bruce. Her outspokenness blazed the way for his iconoclasm; from her hatred of hypocrisy sprang his. She was even there when he made his first tentative steps as an M.C. in strip joints to coach him on the intricacies of comic timing and lend him some of her material. "Lenny Bruce opened the door for every modern American comic, right?" she says, putting her checkered past into perspective for us. "So, in a way, you could say I gave birth to George Carlin and Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy and Lily Tomlin and Robin Williams and Bill Cosby and Gilda Radner and David Letterman."
Well, I suppose you could say that. Given the evidence in "Sally Marr," though, the claim seems a bit inflated. Did she actually barge into a men's room and proposition the local rabbi, who had demanded $250 to officiate at Lenny's bar mitzvah? Then tell him off when he rejected her offer? For her son's 11th birthday, did she take him to a burlesque show, justifying it as both "a little culture and . . . a lesson in anatomy"? And did she, in reality, exhort him at the outset of his career to quit telling jokes and "talk about things people really relate to"?
It is probably best to keep in mind that this is a mother speaking, and that mothers, even Lenny Bruce's, get carried away. Still, "Sally Marr" never seems particularly authentic as biography, a shortcoming the authors excuse by noting that their script is only "suggested by the life of Sally Marr." Yet viewed simply as a play, it amounts to little more than a string of blackout sketches, culminating in a punch line or a punch in the stomach. Punch lines, the star knows inside and out. As for the sudden explosions of rage or the terrible feelings of abandonment, you have the eerie impression they're Ms. Rivers's as much as they're Sally Marr's.
Mr. Price has dressed up the proceedings, and not just with the escorts (Jonathan Brody, Ken Nagy and Valerie Wright), who are busy all night long in their multiple guises, but also with scenic projections by Wendall K. Harrington that are very nearly as active. An onstage band provides honky-tonk music, and Phil Monat supplies lighting to match. Periodically, the operating table is propelled about the stage to remind us that Sally's life hangs in the balance. While the swirls of activity stop short of the nightmarish, they impart an inexorability to events that don't necessarily possess it on their own.
Nevertheless, all the fancy production values could probably be disposed of with no discernible loss. It's Ms. Rivers, after all, who drives the patchwork script forward with the same manic energy that informs her stand-up routines. Her well-lacquered appearance notwithstanding, she has always had a combatant's mentality. (What is her celebrated call to gossip -- "Can we talk?" -- but the opening gong in her personal battle against sham?) She may not be Sally Marr, as Hollywood ads used to boast. But, like her, she has played the lounges with "a two-rape minimum," had a husband abandon her, known crushing failure and lived to tell the tale.
I suspect that's what this oddly confessional evening is really all about.
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.