Hard to believe John Leguizamo is actually 46-years-young. I’ve been a fan of his stage persona ever since my ex-wife and I were visiting New York City and she dragged me to the theater to see Mambo Mouth (1991) and, two years later, on tour, Spic-O-Rama. Eleven years later, the little Colombian so-and-so is still at it, bouncing off the stage walls like a kid with fake IDs rendered paranoid after smoking up a giant blunt of super-potent pot. The raw screaming falsetto profundo may not be quite as street honest and keen as it used to be. He has, as he says, been “living phat too long” for the bitter parts to ring as true as they used to, but his material still packs a punch.
Dare I say it, but in between the shuck and jive of his perpetually hyper movement around the stage is a comedian who is no longer counter-culture, per sé. While he’s not at all slick and predictable, like a latter-day Billy Crystal, his 180-minute fractured fairy tale is a subway trip from Queen’s to Manhattan with stops in Hollywood and wherever in the world fancy takes him. Ghetto Klown was a two-night limited-engagement gig at the Chicago Theater. Muscular and wiry, Leguizamo still has it with the diddly-bops, hip-hop, and breaks dances across the stage, up the aisles, fast-talking his way out from blue-collar suburban Queens to the big time as he recounts his rollicking subway ride from obscurity in Queens to celebrity. Entertaining: Oh yeah! But it’s more like a greatest hits album than anything new.
I was actually okay with the old material about the bad boys of Queens: Colombians pretending to be Puerto Rican. His papi embarrassed by his mop fro. The fact that it all still works, the gift of deft mimicry, the mad Uzi dexterity of traded vocal inflections from multiple convincing characters. The Barrío confessional is Leguizamo’s milieu. Above all, he tells a punchy story, pacing himself as if he’s in the ring with a professional opponent who knows how to slip punches.
I’m a little less enamored with the way Leguizamo eschews what Joni Mitchell calls “the star maker machinery” that he simultaneously loves and hates. He recognizes and offers up scores of anecdotes that feed the audience’s desire for celebrity insider gossip. There’s the earnest rah-rah coaching from Brian De Palma; a bit of macho posturing concerning the status-quo from Al Pacino; a bitter lesson learned from tangling with the narcissistic myopia of a hubris-befuddled Sean Penn; Benicio Del Toro out mumbling Brando; a really bizarre audition for the Australian director Baz Luhrmann, and the hilarious tale of a drunken encounter with the late Patrick Swayze that somehow goes from a barrage of insulting invective to details of being hungover while vomiting french-fried grasshoppers.
He does not necessarily spare himself, either. Leguizamo’s recollection of his Fox Sunday sketch-comedy series House of Buggin’ being cancelled was being fired. They fired him, he insists, and he will neither forgive nor forget. In spite of doing very well thank you as a character actor in scores of movies, Leguizamo keeps hold of his grudges. Directed with a light touch by actor-producer Fisher Stevens, the show makes extensive use of projections on a rear screen of movie and TV clips, photographs, maps, etc. Otherwise it’s pretty minimalistic: a table, chairs and a fire escape on the back wall evoking Leguizamo’s childhood in Queens.
As ever the attention to detail Leguizamo shows in recalling the minutia of his tortured history as the son of a disappointed father still stings.
“¿Sufra en silencio?” he asks about his self-absorbed father. “¡Ni siquiera no salads!” (“Suffer in silence? He didn’t even acknowledge us.”) This gag had the audience eating out of his hand. That a son who has made an admirably massive and lucrative career is seen through a fog of indifference as a sort of cultural and class enemy draws a massive reaction from the audience. Leguizamo still manages to touch something extraordinary here. Something special.