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Theater review: 'Ghetto Klown' at the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre

October 3, 2011 |  8:51 pm

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John Leguizamo has been performing versions of his life onstage for so long now that catching up with his latest show, “Ghetto Klown,” is like reuniting with a favorite cousin, the funny one who makes those dutiful family events worth attending.

Ricocheting around the stage of the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre as though he had been shot out of a pistol, he provides a tour of his career in showbiz, allowing himself poetic license to condense and rearrange events and combine personalities. Moving from his concrete jungle upbringing in Queens to the eccentric New York theater world, where he came into his own as a solo artist, he eventually finds himself in Hollywood — or “Hollywouldn’t,” depending on how the studios are reacting to his antic rebellion against stereotypical roles. Ever the class clown, he may have matured into a middle-aged father but inside he’s still the same boy his mother used to defend as “just hyper” to those who would have branded him a delinquent.

“Ghetto Klown,” which is directed by actor and movie producer Fisher Stevens, is the third of Leguizamo’s solo shows to make it to Broadway, where it was produced last season. A congenial performer, dancing dynamo and ace mimic (watch the way he mumblingly nabs Benicio Del Toro), Leguizamo doesn’t so much make a meal out of his personal and professional story as set up an entire food court offering jumbo-size platters of the high points and lows. Portion control clearly isn’t one of his artistic strengths (how much does anyone really want to know about the feuding on the set of “Executive Decision”?), but he’s such energetic company that one hardly minds that he overstays his welcome by a good half-hour.

Ghetto kown 1 The cast of characters he incarnates includes his parents — mother as obsessed with her budget and father just as bullying and resentful as they were in earlier stage depictions. When Leguizamo announces that he has decided to become an actor, Pops tells him he didn’t move the family up from Colombia to grow poorer and kicks him out of the house.

His best friend RayRay, the first person to laugh at all his jokes and believe in his future, plays a pivotal role. After Leguizamo begins to taste some screen success, RayRay is put on the payroll, looking after his interests and keeping up his street cred — until business and friendship inevitably prove a destructive combination.

Cast as a drug dealer on “Miami Vice” early in his career, Leguizamo is conflicted about whether to accept the part. His elderly acting teacher, a kindly, bird-like woman he calls Tweety, had encouraged him to think he was going to be “the Latino Laurence Olivier.” He implores his “third-world commie pinko” Gramps for advice and is told to resist the exploitation, but if he does take the part to be sure to remember that “only white Latinos make it to Telemundo,” so “walk on the shaded side of the street.”

Leguizamo is at his sharpest when he has a political point. Too often, however, his anecdotes meander. There’s a lot of brawling on movie sets with the likes of Steven Seagal, Kurt Russell and Patrick Swayze. Leguizamo’s penchant for ad-libbing lines annoys his costars. Al Pacino apparently erupts during a scene in “Carlito’s Way” after Leguizamo refuses to stick to the script. “Just be yourself, you clown,” the Oscar-winning legend tells him, assuming his fellow actor is goofing off out of fear. But is this clown persona his most authentic reality?

Leguizamo is ultimately fighting for better roles, but he’s also struggling to contain his ego, which has difficulty accepting the more limited creative input an actor is allowed. After he won an Obie for “Mambo Mouth” and received Tony nominations for “Freak” and “Sexaholix … a Love Story,” it surely must have been difficult to accept parts as written. But a teacher examining the situation would probably chalk up his outbursts to the useful catchall of “behavioral problems.”

There’s no need for anyone to tell him to grow up. Leguizamo, who refers to this show as “a cautionary tale,” knows that he needs to pull himself together. (His relationships with women, as he unsparingly reveals, are even more unruly than his TV and film exploits.) The theater, he says, is his therapy. His happiness comes from writing and acting out his unhappiness.

The lack of approval from his father, who starts legal proceedings after seeing how he’s depicted in Leguizamo’s solo work, underlies much of the misery. But it’s not this insight that ultimately saves Leguizamo. His unstoppable theatricality is his lifeline. And his talent for making people laugh keeps us listening even as the second act drifts toward an uncertain conclusion.

“Ghetto Klown” could use an editor, but the strong production team maintains a vibrant pulse. (Aaron Gonzalez deserves a special shout-out for his spry projections.) And at the center of it all is a nuclear performer who, true to his ghetto roots, still wears his underwear sticking out of his track pants while entertaining us with his hip-hop version of the talking cure.



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Theater review: 'Poor Behavior' at Mark Taper Forum

--Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

‘Ghetto Klown,” The Ricardo Montalbán Theatre, 1615 Vine Street, Hollywood. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays.  End. Oct. 16.  $42.50 to $115; premium available. (800) 595-4849 or Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes

Photos: Top and bottom: John Leguizamo. Credit: Carol Rosegg