Ghetto Klown: Theater Review

Ghetto Klown Press Still 2011
John Leguizamo’s strengths as a performer are still on ample display, but in his fifth solo show, he’s treading water.

The writer-performer draws from the same well once too often in his latest stage play at New York’s Lyceum Theatre.

NEW YORK – At the end of Ghetto Klown, John Leguizamo says, “Being on stage is my religion.” After five self-exploratory solo shows, it might even be called his drug. But this greatest-hits compilation suggests the writer-performer has drawn from the same well once too often.

There’s no disputing that Leguizamo knows how to command a stage. His limber physicality and bad-boy charisma, his gift for mimicry and vocal inflection, his effortless ability to inhabit multiple characters, all make him a pro at this type of confessional memoir. He tells a punchy story.

He also feeds the voracious public appetite for celebrity insider access by dutifully digging up Hollywood anecdotes. There’s a pep talk from Brian De Palma; a prickly face-off with Al Pacino; a bruising recollection of a scene with Sean Penn; an aggressive audition for Baz Luhrmann; a little Benicio Del Toro mumblespeak; and a dust-up with Patrick Swayze that ends with a hungover Leguizamo hurling an undigested meal of fried grasshoppers.

All this is engaging and often very funny, and the partisan crowd at the Lyceum on the show’s first press night ate it up, particularly the many Hispanic-specific references. The production has been selling well enough to prompt an extension before it officially opened.

But at almost 2½ hours, Ghetto Klown smacks of self-indulgent recycling. It’s part vanity exercise and part therapy. Leguizamo continues to reflect on his issues with his father, his missteps with women, his struggle to play well with others, even if a threat of serenity has crept into the material now that he is happily married and has a family. But the impression this time around is of a writer-performer going through the motions, falling back somewhat lazily on a format that has worked for him in the past, rather than stretching in new directions.

No mention is made of Leguizamo’s last Broadway appearance, in a mishandled 2008 revival of David Mamet’s American Buffalo that closed in a week after withering reviews. Omitting that stinging episode seems like cheating.

There’s a tad more self-reckoning in Leguizamo’s account of being fired off the Fox sketch-comedy series House of Buggin’, which eventually morphed into Mad TV. But mostly, the ups and downs of his career serve to take shots at his collaborators and co-stars. Whether it’s intended is unclear, but the effect is to paint Leguizamo as a talent with more ego than discipline.

Efficiently directed by actor-turned-producer Fisher Stevens, the show covers five decades, starting with the 1960s. It makes extensive use of projections on a rear screen – movie and TV clips, photographs, maps, etc. – but otherwise is functional in design. There’s a table and chairs and a fire escape on the back wall that evokes Leguizamo’s childhood in Queens.

Leguizamo’s earliest shows, Mambo Mouth and Spic-O-Rama, were groundbreaking works that explored Latino experience, ethnic identity and stereotyping with humor and hard-edged attitude. Graduating to Broadway with Freaks and Sexaholix … A Love Story, he continued to fuse standup with theatrical memoir. But this return visit to themes from those shows is alternately rambling and perfunctory, and the reflections on where he is now in life feign deep-probe analysis without actually revealing much. He talks about the pain in his soul; he just doesn’t show it.

One major change of the 21 years since Leguizamo first started turning his life inside-out on stage is a cultural landscape now flooded with self-absorption, in reality TV, blogs and social network sites. That might make it time for a performer of Leguizamo’s abilities to look beyond his navel.

Venue: Lyceum Theatre, New York (Through July 10)
Cast/playwright: John Leguizamo
Director: Fisher Stevens
Set designer: Happy Massee
Lighting designer: Jen Schriever
Sound designer: Peter Fitzgerald
Projection designer: Aaron Gonzalez
Presented by WestBeth Entertainment, Daveed D. Frazier, Nelle Nugent