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This review is of the show’s premiere New York presentation at The Public Theater, where it opened March 3, 2017, and ran through April 28. The production transfers to Studio 54 in a limited Broadway engagement.
The John Leguizamo on stage these days is not quite the one to whom we’ve been accustomed. The actor-monologist — whose previous one-man shows include such provocative efforts as Spic-O-Rama, Freak, Sexaholix…a Love Story and Ghetto Klown — is now a husband and father. He’s adopted a distinctly professorial mien for his latest effort, even wearing a tie, vest and jacket. What hasn’t changed is his choice in footwear, sneakers or his his brand of irreverent, profane humor, which is on full display in Latin History for Morons, a comedic lecture for which the audience assumes the role specified in the title.
The ostensible reason the performer is delving into the history of his people is that his eighth-grade son has been bullied at school because of his ethnicity. Determined to teach his boy to be proud of his heritage, Leguizamo attempts to fill the significant gap in most people’s knowledge of Latin history, roughly stretching from the Mayans to Pitbull. And this being Leguizamo, you can rest assured that a frenzied imitation of the singer is part of the show.
Performing on a classroom-like set featuring a blackboard, file cabinets and books, Leguizamo incorporates a few audience members into the proceedings. Asking questions and issuing demerits if the responder hasn’t been paying sufficient attention, he proves a stern but jocular taskmaster.
Leguizamo intersperses his wandering account of such civilizations as the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas with personal anecdotes, including an ill-fated encounter with the principal of his son’s school and a series of therapy sessions with his condescending shrink, who has his eyes forever on the clock. The performer also notes that “Columbus was the Donald Trump of the New World”; explains that his exploration of Latin history has given him a case of “conquest resentment”; and hilariously mimes exactly how the Europeans supposedly contracted syphilis. He also joyously demonstrates several Latin dances, and delivers imitations of figures ranging from Stephen Hawking to Andrew Jackson, the latter achieved with a generous dose of chalk dust applied to his unruly hair.
If you’re actually interested in learning about the subject being discussed, this may not be the show for you. Often digressive and repetitive, the piece staged by Tony Taccone spews out information in a haphazard manner that, as with any lecture, may cause your mind to wander. The frequently scatological humor is hit-or-miss, and the historical tidbits are often buried in cheap jokes. Much of the subject matter will prove familiar even for “morons,” with a few exceptions, such as the fascinating tale of Loretta Velazquez, a Cuban-American woman who posed as a man to fight for the Confederate Army in the Civil War.
Leguizamo doesn’t blend humor and information as successfully as Colin Quinn, who has similarly mined history for such one-person shows as Long Story Short and Unconstitutional. But he’s a far more dynamic comedic performer, using energetic body language and vocal inflections to make even his weaker material amusing. Leguizamo is such an engaging presence that he makes Latin History for Morons enjoyable, although you may find yourself impatiently waiting for the classroom bell to sound.
Venue: Studio 54, New York
Writer-performer: John Leguizamo
Director: Tony Taccone
Set designer: Rachel Hauck
Lighting designer: Alexander V. Nichols
Music and sound designer: Bray Poor
Presented by Nelle Nugent, Kenneth Teaton, Audible, Peter Fine, Jon B. Platt, Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the Public Theater, in association with Melissa and Dan Berger, Jamie deRoy/Stefany Benson, Morwin Schmookler
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