Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 22, 2011
Ghetto Klown Written by and starring John Leguizamo. Directed by Fisher Stevens. Scenic design by Happy Massee. Lighting design by Jen Schriever. Sound design by Peter Fitzgerald. Projection design by Aaron Gonzalez.
This sort of movement is hardly uncharted territory for Leguizamo, who's injected numerous moments of energetic, cross-cultural dance into his previous solo shows. But in few cases has it been deployed as thoroughly or as ineffectively as it is here. Despite Leguizamo's as-usual boundless energy and relatively restrained direction from Fisher Stevens, the fancy footwork and the production's other plentiful ornamentation just seems like emphatic punctuation on a story that only intermittently demands to be told.
Both Leguizamo's slightly more fictional evenings (Mambo Mouth and Spic-o-Rama) and his more identifiably autobiographical efforts (Freak, Sexaholix... a love story) dealt with precise events or feelings that coalesced into concentrated explosions of theatricality. Whether he was charting the malleability of Latinos in American culture, his pained relationship with his father, or his rocky love life, you always knew where he stood and where you were going.
This time, the trip is much more circuitous. In the first act, Leguizmo examines how he got his start in entertainment, progressing from "experimental" comedy acts at chic downtown venues to a guest starring spot on Miami Vice and then to movies, television, and eventually Broadway. To the extent his personal travails whether with women, his still-disapproving father, his supportive grandfather, or his celebrity costars (Lee Strasberg, Kurt Russell, Stephen Seagal, and Don Johnson are among them) come into play at all, it's to reflect on the broader question that consumed him for decades: "Is this what I should be doing?"
It's a good question, but Leguizamo never leaves much serious doubt that the answer is yes. Because we know who he is and what he's done, there's not much suspense in whether he'll realize what we already know. Getting there is half the fun, of course, and Leguizamo remains a capable mimic of friends and family of every age, race, and social stratum. But as this show has a protracted length of some two hours and twenty minutes, even half the fun proves to take a long time when you're just moving in a circle. Something else needs to give his struggle dimension, and for the most part, we don't discover it.
In other shows, the people surrounding Leguizamo have been every bit as exciting as he is (and, in many cases, more exciting than he is). Here, the supporting cast is sketchily drawn, a series of cameos that don't quite add up to a satisfying dramatis personae of a life. His manipulative friend Rayray, his encouraging first acting teacher, and even his first wife Lissette are insubstantially drawn compared to the vivid personalities we're used to from Leguizamo.
This is perhaps the most unusual aspect of Ghetto Klown. Leguizamo's other autobios were either more focused or more personal, giving him more dramatic leeway but rarely requiring him to exercise it. The broader view he adopts here does not help him. Though Leguizamo has had his share of ups and downs embarrassingly clichι parts in films, a television series (House of Buggin') that flopped spectacularly he's experienced few of the world-entrancing successes or conflagrative failures that could make this kind of professional memoir into a thrilling roller-coaster ride.
When Leguizamo adjusts his glance in the second act, however, his story and personality click almost instantly into place. His tales of wooing and wedding his dream girl (she handled wardrobe on a movie he did) and subsequently finding himself the home-minded family man he never thought he'd become are freer and much funnier than the work anecdotes that fill so many of the opening scenes without telling you anything substantive about the man behind the mania.
Leguizamo's uniquely brusque sense of humor even manifests itself better in the production elements than in the earliest scenes. Happy Massee's set is a funky fusion of off-elegant elements: a swank desk for when he plays his ancient Jewish agent, a scaffold and balcony from which he can romance his soul mate (and more than a little reminiscent of the Shakespeare-inspired Romeo + Juliet, in which he costarred as Tybalt). And Aaron Gonzalez's projections are themselves a hoot, whether identifying (with helpful illustrations) how Queens is, ahem, the "scrotum of New York," or depicting the bumpy subway ride on which Leguizamo acquired and honed his performing chops.
Amusing as all this is, Leguizamo makes sure you know that he's aiming deeper than pure laughter. "I had vowed to never come back," he explains. "That's why this is a cautionary tale. I wanna be an example of what not to do." Ultimately, he succeeds at both that and showing us eventually what he considers the proper path: following his heart instead of his wallet. Ghetto Klown is at its best when Leguizamo isn't pretending he doesn't already know he's waltzing us in that direction.