Review: `Freak’

Corrections or additions?

These reviews by Simon Saltzman were published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

April 8, 1998. All rights reserved.

Broadway Review: `Art’

The over-praised (or is it over-appraised?) British

import "Art," by Yasmina Reza, will undoubtedly find a Broadway

audience eager to cheer the middle-aged, middle-class contenders in

this 90-minute round of intellectual fisticuffs. The manly art of

the bitchy put down achieves world-class status in this clever little

conceit of a play in which three word-sparring middle-class men take

sides and draw the lines between the value of abstract and figurative

art.

However, it’s hard for me to be more than mildly impressed with the

play’s basic premise: that a 15-year friendship between three oddly

bonded heterosexuals would come to an abrupt end just because one

has purchased a painting for 200,000 francs. Yet there is no denying

that the ability of a five-by-four, white-on-white painting by a modernist

artist to incite a cataclysmic war of words among men has the making

of a very funny picture. Okay, I laughed a little. But this kind of

story was funnier in an old one-act play called, "If Men Played

Cards as Women do."

It is difficult to embrace a play devoted to little more than polarizing

high fallutin’ opinions, even when those opinions are so glibly and

ingenuously expressed by the three excellent actors Alan Alda, Victor

Garber, and Alfred Molina. This trio has a ball with their outrageously

insignificant, esthetically indefensible characters. And director

Matthew Warchus orchestrates the ceaseless babble and reckless brouhaha

with a curator’s meticulous sense of control. There are those who

will undoubtedly be kept amused by how the painting that Marc (Alan

Alda), an aeronautical engineer, has smugly and snottily denounced

to its purchaser Serge (Garber), a successful dermatologist, as a

"piece of shit," would warrant such an outpouring of portentously

expressed hostility.

Marc’s insensitive assault on his friend’s values, first based on

the cost of the painting, and then on its arguable worth, sets the

play’s testy tone. But it is the secondary attacks and counter-attacks,

when Serge’s personal taste and inferred disloyalty to the condescending

and intolerably opinionated Marc is put to the test, that the play

begins to percolate. There are moments when the characters are allowed

to appear as compassionate, sensitive people, able to feel and be

hurt. That is when they are not engaged in making a spectacle of their

self-deprecating, self-defeating bitterness.

At first, Marc’s ostensibly artistic judgment appears

as qualitatively enlightened as it is tiresomely articulated. It is

to our great relief that Marc is ultimately challenged, not by the

equally pretentious defensive rhetoric from Serge, but by Yvan (Molina),

the unwitting, self-absorbed but more neutral arbitrator. As such,

he becomes prey to his buddies’ ravenous appetite for an unsuspecting

scapegoat. The play peaks when Yvan takes a hilariously digressive

path from the rage and fury about art that is tearing their friendship

apart to tear into a protracted, angst-driven monologue about how

his wedding plans have gone haywire.

One can assume that Christopher Hampton’s translation loses little

of the brittle and acerbic resonance of Reza’s text. Alda is scarily

convincing as the trio’s unofficially ordained mentor. Garber almost

steams up the apartment with his dangerously compressed air of independence.

And we can all breathe easier when the wonderfully funny Molina smartly

assumes the most naive and most direct path to artistic integrity,

and by doing so inadvertently creates a possible end to the hostilities.

Designer Mark Thompson’s three white-on-white Paris minimalist apartments,

where the action inexplicably shifts, are as stunning as they are

evocative of these men’s fears of an independent esthetic. Not very

deep, hardly provocative, and almost too precious for its own good,

"Art" is, like a 90-minute stroll through SoHo, good for a

few laughs, an occasional gasp, and one — maybe two — sighs

of pleasure. HH

— Simon Saltzman

Art, Royale Theater, 242 West 45th Street, 800-432-7250

or 212-239-6200. $45 to $60.

Top Of Page
Review: `Freak’

While "Freak" is not my cup of tea, I have to

say that its author and solo performer John Leguizamo is a dazzlingly

talented entertainer and a terrific actor. But getting through his

raucous, riotous, rant-filled, one-man, multi-character stand-up and

spill-all dramatic comedy routine called "Freak" can be a

trial — that is if you aren’t one of the already initiated. You

have to be prepared for the disturbing and frenzied ways that this

exuberant mimic, mime, dancer, and story-teller enlivens the most

intimate and painful moments of his life. And under David Bar Katz’

flexible direction, Leguizamo chooses not to be confined to the limits

set by the proscenium arch.

It’s hard not to be impressed by such a relentlessly driven talent

as Leguizamo exhibits. And when Leguizamo’s multi-layered facial and

body contortions are set in motion, look out. Whether you’ve seen

his earlier stage outings, "Mambo Mouth" (1991) and "Spic-O-Rama"

(1994), in which he demonstrated his uncanny ability to extract the

essence and attitudes of multi-racial characters, as seen from the

perspective of one passionate insightful Nueva York Latino, or know

his excellent film work in "To Wong Foo…," "Romeo and

Juliet" (as Tybalt opposite Leonardo DiCaprio), Leguizamo makes

an unforgettable impression.

In the case of the redemptive and apparently soul-purifying "Freak,"

Columbia-born Leguizamo is giving us slices from his life. There’s

one helluva dysfunctional family exorcised by Leguizamo as he gets

off his chest what it meant to grow up poor and instinctively rebellious.

His explosive, vengeful narrative places unmerciful emphasis on his

punitive father’s mistreatment of him, and the unhappy marriage of

his parents. That he transforms himself into his macho father "The

King of Tenements" as effortlessly as he affects his mother’s

risibly defensive air of sensuality is awesome. Growing up in Jackson

Heights, Queens, Corona, and the Bronx, and the toughening experiences

among hostile ethnic types, are generously flecked with some outrageously

funny commentary. There is no denying the affection he is now able

to express for the Irish and Italians, impersonating them with a reflective

accuracy, even in the meanest of encounters.

The only sour notes in Leguizamo’s otherwise hot and hip discourse,

comes from his being too patently vulgar and sexually explicit. Of

course, the under-40s in the audience thought it was just great and

cheered him on. His protracted and overly detailed memory about how

his father forced him to lose his virginity to a fat old German sexpot

in the back of a Kentucky Fried Chicken store is really gross. But

the most compelling of the several dozen characters that this feverishly

energized young man in black nylon trousers and a Mets tee shirt portrays

are family members, including a gay deaf uncle, friends, and, of course,

himself. Unlike the recent "Capeman," "Freak" embraces

the optimistic heart and the uplifted soul of a Latino. HH

— Simon Saltzman

Freak, Cort Theater, 138 West 48 Street, 800-432-7250

or 212-239-6200. $17.50 to $55. Extended. Rush tickets in the first

two rows of the orchestra are available on the day of each performance

for $17.50 (limit two per person).


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