Hollywood has yet to figure how to harness the talents of John Leguizamo, but the Broadway stage has no such trouble. The comic performer’s latest solo show, the semi-autobiographical “Freak,” is another tour-de-force from a man who can conjure entire families — entire boroughs, even — with a face as mutable as putty and a voice teeming with more accents than a New York subway car.
Written by Leguizamo and developed with director David Bar Katz, “Freak” recounts, in ways both comic and harsh, the performer’s upbringing in various New York City neighborhoods, focusing mostly on the performer’s rocky relationship with a verbally (and sometimes physically) abusive father. Leguizamo is his own Latino family reunion as he mimics his mean, drunken “Pops,” his flirtatious, Latina-spitfire mother (the show’s best character), and his fat, timid younger brother, as well as numerous other friends, relatives and not-always-friendly neighbors in the ethnic urban battlezones of his youth.
“My parents left their homeland during the great Plantain famine,” Leguizamo quips. “Their accents were so thick they couldn’t understand each other.” Perhaps no comic since Richard Pryor has been better at wringing laughs from horrific childhoods: After young John breaks the antenna of his father’s beloved television, his terrified mother (in the feminine Puerto Rican accent that Leguizamo nails) says, “I’m looking into the face of a dead boy.”
The beating that follows is brutal, and Leguizamo spares no details, going so far as to include a very funny near-death experience. Even his own weaknesses aren’t unexplored — regaining consciousness, he immediately blames his innocent little brother for the broken TV.
Dressed in a New York Mets jersey and nylon athletic pants, the always-moving Leguizamo literally bounds about the spare set, backed by some witty screen projections and an effective lighting design. The intimacy of the show’s Off Off Broadway workshops survives the transition to Broadway as Leguizamo, well-directed by Katz, breaks into the hip-hop dances that have become a trademark or sits at the stage’s edge during a quieter moment. His biographical anecdotes take a familiar course, beginning with his adolescent discovery of masturbation (“I was cleaning it and it went off”), dating, club-hopping and the slow realization of his artistic bent (inspired by, of all things, the Latina character in “A Chorus Line”).
But within the commonplace framework is room for some very original flourishes. Among the characters he re-creates are a beloved uncle (a “triple threat” for being Latin, gay and deaf), his first girlfriend and her disapproving Black Muslim father, the middle-aged German prostitute who, at his father’s request, initiates the 16-year-old Leguizamo into sex, and in a terrific sequence that showcases the performer’s versatility, the Irish and Italian thugs of Brooklyn and Queens who don’t exactly put out a welcome mat for Puerto Ricans.
Before he comes to “Freak’s” not-altogether-convincing father/son reconciliation scene, Leguizamo tells tales of his college years in Southern California (where he attempts to fit in with his surfer-dude frat brothers), his disastrous audition for acting coach Lee Strasberg and the ethnic typecasting that greeted his entry into the business (he played the lead in an Off Off Broadway production of “Junkie Christ”).
Although nearly always funny, some of the anecdotes ring truer than others, and Leguizamo is more poignant in comedy than in straightforward pathos. His account of inadvertently stumbling into Strasberg’s acting class, for example, strikes as a bit disingenuous, and, more significantly, the play’s final confrontation between father and son (“I knew my father loved me”) seems more a concession to dramatic convention than honest character development. Fortunately, Leguizamo never stays in one place too long, and no sooner has he made amends with dad than he’s finishing the show with a very moving dedication to the Latino talents that paved his way, from Desi Arnaz to Freddie Prinze. Artistically, if not chronologically, Leguizamo earns his place high atop that list.