nytheatre.com review by Danny Bowes
March 21, 2011
John Leguizamo's Ghetto Klown sees its writer-star drawing from similar subject matter as his previous one-man shows. He has evolved from the presentational style of his early career (the groundbreaking Mambo Mouth and follow-up Spic-o-Rama)—inhabiting multiple characters—to a more confessional mode. Where earlier Leguizamo took refuge in being other people, he now faces the even greater challenge, being himself.
To call his evolution as a writer-performer maturation is to undervalue his earlier work, and also an utter misnomer, as Leguizamo still derives (and provides) great pleasure from silliness and immaturity. His acting, dancing, singing, and comic timing are as sharp as ever. His writing has taken on a more self-critical tone; even in Ghetto Klown's very funny anecdotes about working with the likes of Brian De Palma, Sean Penn, Kurt Russell, Patrick Swayze, and (especially) Steven Seagal, Leguizamo is never afraid to portray himself as out of line, foolish, angry, or outright wrong. A particularly self-critical eye is cast on his romantic life: a long sequence where he pursues a costume designer has a deeply intertextual relationship with Joy Division's “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” which is not the sunniest love song ever written, to say the least (though it isn't as utterly doomed as many people seem to think, and of course with that intertextual relationship neither, necessarily, is the story of the costume designer).
Life and art blend into one throughout the show, as Leguizamo presents events out of chronological order, but in the way they feel subjectively true to him, and also for their value in building a narrative whose happy ending actually started somewhere in the middle. Life is notoriously badly edited, but Leguizamo, in blending life and art, takes editorial control in the service of entertainment.
This leads to the show's greatest strength: while the script is neatly constructed, tightly paced, and full of marvelous observations and attention to detail (with the odd gloriously atrocious joke thrown in because, why not?), it is secondary to Leguizamo as a performer. His magnetism and ability to hold the audience in the palm of his hand are near unparalleled. Of course, he relates best to those in the audience who can feel the full sting of Leguizamo's father calling him “mariconcito,” and the weight of his mother's sigh as she declares herself “desgraciado.” For those who feel left out, Leguizamo suggests—not terribly gently—that they learn Spanish: “Just call your bank and press 2.” Some regard this as belligerence, but I personally am with him: aprenda, mis amigos. Es más fácil que realizan.
The show's visual presentation is attractive, with director Fisher Stevens integrating multimedia elements—Aaron Gonzalez's excellent, complimentary projection design as well as Peter Fitzgerald's sound—with a set by Happy Massee that manages to be, at once, a bare back wall of a theater as well as the side of a building in Leguizamo's old neighborhood in Queens, complete with fire escape. All of these elements support the star nicely, never distracting from him, always giving just what he needs and no more or less.
Ghetto Klown is a must for theatergoers who are already fans of Leguizamo, as it amounts to a kind of greatest hits collection and provides a number of priceless behind-the-scenes looks at his career high (and low) lights. Even non-fans, though, can appreciate an insightful memoir of a career in showbiz fraught with otherness, told with insight, and performed by a magnificently charismatic born entertainer. That, in fact, is the point of the show, and its narrative arc: John Leguizamo was born to entertain.