March 26, 2011

"Ghetto Klown" is Stuck in Familiar Territory

I saw Mambo Mouth, John Leguizamo’s first one-man show when it played at the old American Place Theatre back in 1991.  And I had a really good time—a better time, alas, than I had at Ghetto Klown, Leguizamo’s fifth one-man show, which opened at the Lyceum Theatre this week.

Twenty years ago, Leguizamo’s manic energy and keenly observed stories about his Colombian and Puerto Rican relatives and friends were as fresh and funny as all get out. Plus he brought a Hispanic sensibility to the stage that, if you discount West Side Story, had been missing from mainstream theater and is only rarely seen now. 

Leguizamo, who is now 46, is a very talented guy and an irrepressible charmer so there are still a lot of laughs to be found in Ghetto Klown.  But the show is too long—nearly two and a half hours, when 90 minutes would have been fine.  And it’s self-indulgent in other ways too.

It is entertaining to listen to Leguizamo riff on his career, from his teen days when he’d sneak into the conductor’s booth on the subway and tell jokes over the p.a. system to his roles in movies co-starring with superstars like Al Pacino (“Carlito’s Way”) Sean Penn (“Casualties of War”) and Leonardo DiCaprio (“Romeo + Juliet”) even if, as Leguizamo admits in a program note, he’s changed things around to suit the narrative he’s created for Ghetto Klown

Meanwhile director Fisher Stevens has done a nice job of folding in photos, videos and even dance moves from back in the day (click here to reada piece about the collaboration between the director and the star). 

But it’s less fun to have Leguizamo drone on and on about his emotionally stunted father, his overbearing mother, his rocky romances, and botched attempts to keep it real with his homeboys from the old neighborhood (click here to read a Daily News story in which he visits the block where he grew up in Queens) .

The result is a show that turns out to be more for Leguizamo’s good than for the audience's. It’s like a self-help group where only one person is getting most of the catharsis. As he says at one point, he should be paying the ticket buyers for the therapy he’s getting instead of the other way around. Indeed, I haven’t seen anyone feed off the energy of an audience that much since Liza Minnelli was at the Palace two seasons ago.

But Leguizamo has a following—two huge busses were parked outside the theater when my stepdaughter Anika and I left the theater to run across the street for a light supper at Bond 45. And there were more Hispanic faces in the theater than one usually sees. A cheering section up in the balcony expressed its exuberant support throughout the performance.  The 12-week run has already been extended to July 10.

And you don’t have to be Hispanic to appreciate Ghetto Klown.  Like Liza, Leguizamo is tireless—throughout the evening, he cracks jokes, sings, break dances, does imitations, and even declaims some Shakespeare. If you’ve never seen a Leguizamo show before, the comparisons to the previous ones won’t matter.  You might even have as good a time as I did the first time I saw him.

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