The rather coy subtitle for “Freak,” John Leguizamo’s new solo show — “A Semi-Demi-Quasi-Pseudo Autobiography” — suggests the unreliability of a stage memoir that values raucous, over-the-top set pieces over any deep self-examination.
On those terms, however, “Freak” is often very funny, and reps a welcome return to the dynamism of the performer’s prior stage solos (“Mambo Mouth,” “Spic-O-Rama”) after the mixed rewards of his Hollywood career to date (“Super Mario Bros.,” “To Wong Foo …,” “Romeo & Juliet,” “The Pest,” and the Fox sketch series “House of Buggin’ “). Script, co-written with director David Bar Katz, could use some structural honing en route to future planned dates, but it’s already on-target as a crowd-pleasing star vehicle.
Leguizamo starts matters off with a brief slide-show history lesson dubbed “Latinos for Dummies,” rapidly moving from the Spanish-conquered Aztecs (“You know what they used to call this place before the white people came? ‘Ours.’ “) to such latter-day pop icons as Ricky Ricardo and Tony Orlando. He then launches into his childhood family odyssey from an unspecified Latin American nation to Jackson Heights, Queens, “the meltingest pot in America.”
It’s not a very nostalgic look back; the extended Leguizamo clan sketched here runs a personality gamut from the callous to the crazy. Asked “Why don’t you quit drinking?,” the star’s “Pops” brags, “Because I’m not a quitter!” Poverty, marital spats and the ever-present threat of beatings further mark this barrio-Dickensian saga, though Leguizamo’s quick, deft mimicry of various characters lends them all a cartoonish (if unflattering) zest.
As its fortunes improve, the family moves in succession to Irish- and Italian-American neighborhoods, where the teenage “class clown” protagonist’s mocking of Neanderthal locals doesn’t go over well. Meanwhile, his dad arranges John’s virginity loss to a 40-year-old German hash slinger; this seg is the show’s most outrageous, with graphic, surreal descriptions that may strike some auds as being too crude.
Dwelling more on external figures than his own development, Leguizamo doesn’t provide much insight into his paths toward college or a budding entertainment career. “Freak” ends with his first professional opening night (playing a stereotypical Latino junkie), which occasions tentative reconciliation with hard-nosed Dad.
One gets the sense here that a life story has been less explored than mined for gag fodder, with incidents manipulated accordingly. While this approach robs more serious aspects of all but fleeting dramatic punch, it does give Leguizamo plenty of room to do what he does best. The innumerable quick-change characterizations are gems of a decidedly non-p.c. nature, ranging from mega-superstitious Latina grandmothers to Caucasian fraternity “trustafarians.” No target is left unexaggerated in accent or physical vocabulary; the offenses are too equal-opportunity to risk real bad taste.
A blur of energy, Leguizamo sometimes hurls out sharp lines too fast for easy comprehension. (Some sound problems opening night didn’t help.) The performer provides his own sensory blitzkrieg, with no need for tech assists beyond brief, occasional lighting and sound-design punctuation.