John Leguizamo hasn’t done a one-man show on Broadway since “Sexaholix” in 2002, so rabid fans should turn out for his latest autobiographical opus, “Ghetto Klown,” which had dry runs last year at Berkeley Rep and in Toronto. Auds with less emotional investment in the ups and downs of the star’s personal life and career should find the show entertaining (the wicked impersonations, in particular), but nonetheless too long, too defensive and too familiar. Industry eyes might find added value in the show as a well-packaged audition piece for this hyper-active, hyper-talented and underused performer.
There’s a lot of nostalgic content to this fast-moving and efficiently mounted (by Fisher Stevens) piece, starting with Leguizamo’s personal history (a la “Freak”) about emigrating with his parents from “El Anus, Colombia” and growing up “in the scrotum of Queens.” (Thanks to the excellent — and consistently amusing — projection work by Aaron Gonzalez, both geographical beauty spots are now firmly etched in memory.)
There is also quite a bit (i.e. too much for casual aud comfort) about the performer’s early loves, two marriages, and various domestic tribulations, in the manner, if not the spirit of “Sexaholix … A Love Story.”
Less familiar is the tone of disappointment and regret that drags down the second act — a second act that would be unnecessary if the show gets the trim it needs. Although the performer’s fan base might be fascinated to get the gory details on his failed TV show (no mention is made of his short-lived Broadway appearance in “American Buffalo”), much of this material feels like an extension of formal therapy sessions.
Happily for Leguizamo admirers who come to laugh, there is beaucoup entertainment value (a la “Mambo Mouth”) in the performer’s dead-on (and deliciously cruel) impersonations of people he has worked with (or run from) over the course of a lifetime in film, theater, television, and on the mean streets of Queens.
Backed up by clips projected on a ghetto wall, the irrepressible performer rocks the house with imitations of the stars he has worked with: a heavy-lidded Don Johnson in “Miami Vice” (“really a cool fucking cat”); Mr. Method Man Sean Penn (who slapped him silly in “Casualties of War”); mumbling Al Pacino; prissy Steven Seagal; stiff-necked Kurt Russell — each and every one of them agog (and maybe aghast) at his manic energy.
Had his mother been around on those movie sets, she might have explained to them, as she does here, in one of Leguizamo’s kinder impersonations, that “he’s not a delinquent — he’s just hyper.”
While it’s accurate to say that Leguizamo does great work when he’s hyper, he’s no less incisive — and a lot more forgiving — when it comes to people he respects and feels protective toward: his wise old grandfather; his first acting teacher; the best friend who let him down.
The caricatures don’t have to be nasty to make an impact. But it does seem to help, and the thesp is far more impressive when he’s taking down his first girlfriend, a poetess he met at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, than getting all mushy about his beloved wife.
As writer and performer, Leguizamo runs the whole gamut of emotions here. And once he fine-tunes the feelings, he’ll have himself another fine show.