"Ghetto Klown” may be John Leguizamo’s most deeply felt, personal, revelatory, and therapeutic performance piece. It may also be the most entertaining segment in this actor/author/populist raconteur/performer’s growing autobiographical canon that is not only dedicated to his own growth as a performer, but also predicated on the idea that he is, by doing it, becoming a better human being. That is for him to decide. We have only to sit back and marvel at his candor and his cojones (Spanish 101).
More than a theory, there is proof that if you are talented and can’t find enough work to make a living in the profession that you love, then write a show for yourself, sell it, and perform in it. That’s simple enough. The multi-talented Leguizamo has taken this concept seriously, also comically, for decades. For the time being anyway, he is not waiting around (or is he fooling us?) to play another monosyllabic, drug-peddling character role in a mediocre film. The highly motivated, incredibly energized, and amazingly gifted Leguizamo is, once again, back on a stage doing what he does best: revealing who he is in a lacerating, liberating, laugh-inducing stand-up routine of his own making.
We have previously seen aspects of his life reflected in “Mambo Mouth,” “Spic-O-Rama,” “Freak,” and “Sexoholic, A Love Story.” “Ghetto Klown” is largely based on his autobiographical 2006 memoir “Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas, and All the Rest of My Hollywood Friends.” This dramatic recapitulation of his struggle to reach out for a life beyond the limitations of life in New York’s immigrant ghettos is sure to resonate with many people.
The skewed Mets baseball cap (we love him already), the tee shirt, and the warm up pants settled fashionably below the hip line don’t prevent this Queens, New York, native from breaking the ice with a little break-dancing, jumping onto a subway car (projected on a screen), and showing us how in his youth he broke into the conductor’s booth, grabbed the mic, and yelled, “Welcome to my show.” In real life, he was arrested. “It was like my first bad review,” he tells us as he begins his almost breathless, fast-paced narrative journey, under the direction of Fisher Stevens.
Occasionally resorting to motor-mouthed Spanish (you’ll get the drift), he takes us from his Colombian family’s roots to his school days to his problematic acting career. Then he’s on to telling us in sometimes graphic detail his more troubled romantic relationships and finally to his life in Queens with his wife and children. He doesn’t leave out his battle with the Hollywood system or his serious struggle with depression. How’s that for a two-and-one-half hour session of sharing your feelings?
Leguizamo gives us stringent and visceral impressions of dysfunctional family members, the ups and downs of a friendship/partnership with a long time friend from the old neighborhood, and most poignantly his difficult relationship with his father, a man whose hearing as well as his zest for life were lost fighting in a revolution in Colombia. In rebuking his father’s advice to keep his emotions bottled up, Leguizamo would find that releasing them would significantly mark his life and career.
Selectively and affectionately precise with his impressions, he gives credit to his first acting coach, an elderly woman with a quivering voice who changes his life (“Your accent is so Spanish. We’re going to have to work on your thuggish sound”), as she hands him an armful of dramatic literature (projected on a screen) by Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, and Miguel Pinero. Moving on to classes with the legendary Lee Strassberg, he zeros in humorously on that teacher’s famously quirky method.
He includes the time when his father intended to sue him for the things he said about him in the 1998 show “Freak.” This episode becomes the emotional epicenter of Leguizamo’s need for a healing reconciliation. He struggles mightily to forgive his father, an embittered man who denied his son any support or encouragement. Leguizamo runs the gamut from being both seriously self-serving and comically empowering, especially when it comes to putting down Hollywood’s rich and famous elite. He captures the affected idiosyncrasies and weird behavior of such stars as Miami Vice star Don Johnson, film stars Sean Penn, Kurt Russell, and most hilariously Steven Seagal that you would swear they were on stage with him.
Besides set designer Happy Massee’s view of the back alley wall of a Queens New York tenement, there is space on one side of the stage for a desk, chair, phone, and hat rack and on the other side, a large screen and projector. Amusing and evocative slides, film, and colorful graphics enhance Leguizamo’s consummately honest and reflective monologue. The question is how much anger and rage can we still see through his otherwise madcap delivery? How therapeutic have all his shows been for him? Who knows? The bottom line is that he is a very funny guy. That’s good enough therapy for me. ***
“Ghetto Klown,” through Sunday, July 10, Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45th Street. $29.50 to $116.50. 212-239-6200.