News Column

Theater review: John Leguizamo has the last laugh in powerful 'Ghetto Klown'

June 29, 2013

YellowBrix

June 29--John Leguizamo is one of those actors you know but probably don't know it.

He's done stand-up, theater, TV and dozens of movies, including "Die Hard 2," "Carlito's Way" and "Romeo + Juliet," seldom in leading roles.

He's like a lot of great character actors. You recognize him, but don't always remember his name.

Some of the people around me at Friday's performance of his one-man show "Ghetto Klown" at UTEP's Magoffin Auditorium (it repeats at 8 p.m. June 29; $38, $42 at Ticketmaster) were trying to figure out just who he was or how to pronounce his name. Several looked him up on their smart phones.

You could hear murmurs of recognition later when Leguizamo discussed, or the video screen flashed images of one of the

numerous movies, plays and TV shows in which he starred.

He has amassed a sizable body of work, somewhat under the radar. With the often laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes gut-wrenching "Ghetto Klown," his fifth one-man show, the 48-year-old New Yorker works doubly hard to make sure no one has a problem putting his name to that expressive face.

"Ghetto Klown" traces his life and career from his birth in Colombia to his discovery of power of theater as a teenager in Queens to his rollercoaster ride through career triumphs and disasters, heartbreaks, depressions (illustrated at each mention by the same comedic video) and, ultimately, personal and professional fulfillment.

He told the audience of about 600 at the onset that it was a

"cautionary tale," and, indeed, it is. It cautions us not to be selfish, put career ahead of family and happiness or to be done in by our demons. He learned the hard way.

"I wanna take you on a journey of what not to do," he said, referring to a troubled childhood and how it inhibited his ability to enjoy himself as a performer and a person until well into middle age. But as ominous as that sounds, "Ghetto Klown" is mostly funny, not deeply dramatic. Humor always has been his best weapon.

It's inventively written and imaginatively executed with none of the narrative fat with which reviewers took issue when it debuted on Broadway two years ago. It's also a piece of confessional theater, or "free therapy" as he cracked early in the nearly two-hour performance, aided by music, video and projections (which were off-center at times) and a spare set that included a street lamp, table, chairs, telephone and record player.

"Klown" makes great use of Leguizamo's signature energy. "Johnny Legs" sings, dances and recreates dozens of voices, including his parents, grandfather, girlfriend, both wives, acting teachers (including the legendary Lee Strasburg), agent, movie directors, costars (including a mumbling Steven Seagal) and estranged best friend, Ray, the first guy to believe in him.

While Leguizamo explains how his failure to connect with the characters in one of his shows led to a long absence from the stage and a string of successful but unfulfilling movies, it is on the stage where he is clearly in his element. Leguizamo, who tweeted photos of his recent visits to Kiki's and Power 102.1, looked pretty comfortable wisecracking and bloodletting to a room full of strangers.

But "Ghetto Klown" doesn't come off as self-indulgent as it may sound. By exposing his own fears, struggles and shortcomings, he's able to tap into some of our own. We may not share the same background, but we know what self-doubt, wrongheadedness and a lack of fulfillment feel like.

Of course, he also uses that innate sense of humor, lyrical and physical to great effect in "Ghetto Klown." Leguizamo channeled his inner Katharine Hepburn to imitate the elderly acting teacher he calls Tweety, but lets you know she "wouldn't let me quit on myself."

His first marriage, he noted, was like a tornado. "A lot of blowing and sucking in the beginning, then you lose your house."

He offered knowing impersonations of a frustrated Al Pacino on the set of "Carlito's Way," a sage and in-drag Patrick Swayzie on the set of "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar," and quoted Shakespeare with a missing-tooth whistle, the result of a fight, while auditioning for "Romeo + Juliet."

When he considered turning to cocaine and alcohol during one crisis, he talked himself out of it, realizing they "are gateways to Christianity." He imitated Seagal's effeminate run, and country line danced to show how he survived in a honky tonk while making one movie.

Leguizamo ad-libbed only a couple of times. "This is a dry-ass town, I gotta tell you," he said as he wet his whistle with a beer. Later, he pointed to a map Thailand, which he dubbed "the VD epicenter of the world." "You thought it was next door," he said, referring to Juarez, "but it was over there."

Pathos always bubbled under the surface. It bubbled up in two very short but powerful scenes. One was a heartbreaking account of a confrontation with his father, indignant at the unflattering portrayal of him in the confessional "Freak." Leguizamo acted it out, building in a long, dramatic pause that silenced the crowd.

The other was a poignant portrayal of his dying grandfather, who advises his grandson to "grow up, stop being so selfish and have children," moments before he leaves.

He used one circular device to great effect. Early in the show, Leguizamo detailed his first "performance," when the young man of many voices commandeered the conductor's microphone -- and got arrested for it. He returned to it for the show's affirming conclusion, this time as a soul-searching adult who repeats the act and realizes he ain't got it so bad with a career, wife and kids.

It's a great way to show himself as a natural performer, the man he has become, and the sharp, insightful writer who learned the hard way that success and happiness aren't measured by the size of your bank account or the glowing praises of your reviews.

___

(c)2013 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas)

Visit the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas) at www.elpasotimes.com

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