At one point, he tells of his first set of television auditions, when he and the same group of Latino actors would repeatedly show up for the same roles. And then he excitedly tells us that he finally got his "first drug dealer" (on "Miami Vice"). If you stop to think about it, there's a lot going on in that phrase. It's a condemnation of the racism in Hollywood that would only cast Latinos in bad guy roles, and it's also pride at getting a part mixed with disappointment that the role didn't let him show off his talents. But, mostly, it's good storytelling; it's Leguizamo understanding that he doesn't have to explain the racism or the disappointmentthe audience is with him all the way, and laughs at the unexpected phrase.
Most of the show works on that level. It's a stroll through Leguizamo's life, with a heavy focus on his career and a somewhat lesser focus on his relationships. It's bright and funny and bursting with the energy that we expect from him. There are insights and commentaries lurking just beneath the surface; but mostly, it's a good time.
And sometimes, it isn't. Sometimes, Leguizamo lets the clown face drop and shows the man beneath, who was struggling with depression, anxiety, and relationship issues. Sometimes, he gives us the guts-spilling he promised at the start of the show, and in just a sentence or two, there is brutal introspective honesty on the stage. There is also wisdom; when he speaks of the lessons he's learned, it is coming from a man who has gone through trials and is a better man for the journey. You can't watch Ghetto Klown without coming away thinking you've seen an intensely personal work; you also can't watch it without coming away with genuine affection for Leguizamo. He ends the show in a pretty good place, and you really hope it's all good things for him from here on out.
Don't bring the kids; there are mature themes and mature language. Leguizamo's work is complemented by a large video screen, which often provides additional laughsone particular running gag involves the screen showing a map identifying cities where Leguizamo worked, with an editorial comment describing the location (Thailand, for example, is the "VD epicenter of the world"). Through the use of the video screen, he shows, in a quick sequence of video and images, how he would fall into a cycle of depression, and ultimately get out of it by writing. If you think about it, there's nothing particularly funny about falling into a cycle of depression; but when you're watching the show, these are definitely laugh-inducing moments. Leguizamo tells these sequences quickly and somewhat self-mockinglyand knowing that he's standing there, on stage, able to talk and joke about it with us gives us permission to see the humor in it.
Leguizamo tells us that his first mentor, a math teacher, told him that he had the "attention span of a sperm." After watching him bounce and dance around the stage, you can't entirely disagree with the assessment. But that was when he was a kidback before Lee Strasberg taught him to turn his destructive energy into creative energy. Ghetto Klown is one-hundred percent creative energy. And that is definitely worth seeing.
Ghetto Klown runs at the Montalban Theatre in Hollywood through October 16, 2011. For tickets, see www.tix.com.
WestBeth Entertainment presents Ghetto Klown, written by and starring John Leguizamo. Scenic Design Happy Massee; Lighting Design Jen Schriever; Sound Design Peter Fitzgerald; Projection Design Aaron Gonzalez; Technical Construction Hudson Theatrical Associates; Projection Consultant Christopher Cronin; Movement Consultant Marlyn Ortiz; General Press Representative Davidson & Choy Publicity; Website & Social Media Bay Bridge Productions; Publicity Blanca Lasalle, Creative Link; Advertising/Marketing Neil Turton; Theatrical Marketing Consultant C. Raul Espinoza; Production Stage Manager Arabella Powell; Theatrical Supervision Smoother Smyth, Delicate Productions, Inc.; Executive Producer Arnold Engelman. Directed by Fisher Stevens.