Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay


Steve Cuiffo Is Lenny Bruce
Curran: Under Construction
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule

Also see Eddie's review of Mother's Milk: A Blues Riff in Three Acts, Richard's reviews of The Monster-Builder and If/Then and Patrick's reviews of Disgraced and Shakespeare Goes to War


Steve Cuiffo
Photo by Jim Norrena
Sitting on the stage of the grand Curran Theatre and gazing in awe at the beautifully carved wood on the box seat and balcony fronts, the golden sunburst in the ceiling's dome, and the Phantom-of-the-Opera-like chandelier lowered and all alit before us, we suddenly hear, "Ladies and Gentleman, Lenny Bruce." Knowing that exactly fifty-four years ago Lenny Bruce in real life walked onto this same stage adds to the anticipated excitement as Steve Cuiffo ambles out on stage and begins his seventy minutes of re-enacting, down to the um's, uh's, pauses and various shticks of the famous comedian from 1961-1963. That performance was right on the heels of Lenny Bruce's being arrested and jailed here in San Francisco on October 4, 1961, for saying on stage "cocksucker."

Our Lenny will recount tonight this story among many others in hilarious detail, including the innumerable times prosecutor, bailiff, and judge found it necessary to repeat over and again with increasingly emphatic emphasis that particular c-word during the short trial and sentencing. As part of the ongoing Curran: Under Construction series, the Curran's owner and producer extraordinaire Carole Shorenstein offers Steve Cuiffo Is Lenny Bruce for just three nights in an intimate, nightclub setting on the main stage, complete with open bar and nibbles (all done while major construction occurs in the front of house).

Lenny Bruce's all too short career in the late '50s and '60s paved the way for dozens of later, great comedians—George Carlin, Cheech & Chong, Dick Gregory, among others—who stretched new political, sexual, religious, and cultural boundaries into territories previously considered too taboo, vulgar, and obscene for the public's ears. Numerous arrests due to obscenity charges, outright bans from cities and even countries, and a growing dive into drug-laced depths made it near impossible in the early to mid '60s for him to find venues to perform. But perform he did (with fortunately some being recorded in entirety), enough to leave a legacy beyond his tragic, morphine-induced death in August 1966 that inspired later Oscar-nominated and Tony-winning performances by the likes of Dustin Hoffman and Cliff Gorman as they brought to wider audiences the free-style satire and social, comedic commentary of Bruce.

And now before us, only feet away from the front row, Steve Cuiffo becomes in amazingly detailed mannerisms, voice inflections, and nervous movements the incomparable Lenny Bruce. More like a jazz performer than stand-up comedian, Mr. Cuiffo's Lenny spits out in staccato, ever-changing tempos a series of subjects, often using words that are just not said in public, maybe even more today than a half century ago. "By the way, are there any (n-word)s here tonight?" he asks us before he goes on to list every no-no word for every ethnic group he can conjure, doing so eventually in rhymed, rap-like cadence (long before rap was even invented).

Owning up that he is a native "CCNY"—that is "Circumcised Citizen of New York"—Lenny confesses as a Jew to killing Christ: "We killed him because he did not want to become a doctor." He tells us, "What politicians have become totally focused on are cocksuckers, Communists, and drug fiends." With a mike held in his left hand to his mouth like a trumpet and intermittently catching his breath with, "OK, OK, OK," he blasts away in rapid succession on how all men are probably homosexuals at some time, who are and are not the comedic geniuses of the times (Fields and Chapman, yes; Berle and Gleason, no), and how Christians are as villainous as the Romans and their lions when considering what they did to the Indians. No subject (even toilets) is off limits to his music-like rants. "My new plateau is there is no right and wrong," he admits sheepishly.

Steve Cuiffo's performance is wonderfully mesmerizing and yet difficult at times to watch—just as the real Bruce's must have been. Do I dare laugh now? Is anyone else going to laugh at that word, or should we all just look grim faced and disapproving while howling on the inside? How did he end up on this subject from where he was a minute ago, and wait—Where in the hell is he going now bringing that up? These were the thoughts going though my mind, as I only imagine they were of others, as I could not for a second take my eye off Mr. Cuiffo aka Lenny Bruce in fear of missing an entire slam on some part of 1966 (and 2015) society.

What makes my own fascinated discomfort on this evening in 2015 more astounding is to consider that Mr. Cuiffo is mirroring as closely as he possibly can something an audience experienced fifty years ago, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and prior to the summer of love, Vietnam, women's lib, Stonewall, etc. How wonderful it is that Curran: Under Construction has chosen to mark this anniversary of Lenny Bruce's performance on this stage by inviting Steve Cuiffo's reenactment. How lucky San Francisco is that more, equally intriguing and unique evenings are soon to come as a part of this Under Construction series (including Stew's Notes of a Native Song December 3-5, elementary school kids' sketches in Story Pirates' Greatest Hits Show December 12-13 and 19-20, and Taylor Mac's A 24-Decade History of Popular Music January 21-17). In the meantime, Steve Cuiffo Is Lenny Bruce is not to be missed.

Steve Cuiffo Is Lenny Bruce continues at the Geary Street stage of the Curran Theatre as a part of Curran: Under Construction through November 21, 2015. For tickets and information, visit sfcurran.com.


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