`Sally Marr' Ranks High Only With Joan Rivers Fans


One-Woman show with Joan Rivers.

Directed by Lonny Price. At the Helen Hayes Theatre.

THERE are certain shows that you know are going to be bad right from the beginning. ``Sally Marr ... and Her Escorts'' is one of them. When we first see the set, a re-creation of a tacky schoolroom, and Joan Rivers clambers down the aisle of the theater and literally crawls onto the stage, a dispiriting air of negative anticipation sets in.

The expectations are not disappointed. Sally Marr is most famous for being the mother of comedian Lenny Bruce, although she was a longtime comic in her own right. This virtually one-person show seems designed to showcase her place in comedy history as Lenny Bruce's seminal influence, and to illustrate her own feisty persona and courage. It was developed by Rivers, Erin Sanders, and Lonny Price, and directed by Price.

The classroom setting is there because the evening is structured around a class where Marr is supposedly teaching her brand of stand-up comedy, which leads to a reminiscence of her life. This includes being a single mother, watching Lenny go off to World War II, witnessing his rise to success while her own career fizzled, dealing with his tragic premature death, and, when she was 82, the horror of being raped by an intruder. It is, to be sure, a life marked by fortitude and spirit, but Sally Marr is no Mama Rose, and this is no ``Gypsy.''

Although I have never seen or heard Sally Marr, it seems a safe bet that she has not been faithfully reproduced, since Rivers's version, in her comic inflections, sounds exactly like ... Joan Rivers. Although there is a case to be made, I suppose, that it was his mother who shaped Lenny Bruce's comic style, what we see and hear onstage seems like Bruce without the wit and without the joyfully snappy delivery. Still, the Rivers fans in the audience, and there were many, were laughing hysterically.

Although there are three other performers onstage, this is really a one-person show, since they are reduced to silent props. This makes ``Sally Marr'' even more awkward than most solo performances, since at many times Rivers must enact both parts of a conversation, speaking the other characters' supposed lines. Mostly this is irritating but inconsequential, but in the case of her famous son, it is a travesty. He was one of the funniest, sharpest, most provocative comic minds of his generation. This witless show succeeds where all the misguided forces of oppression in this country failed; it has silenced Lenny Bruce.

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